Ombudsperson report offers glimpse into uptake

The door to Jennifer Meister’s office is always open to students with questions about university policies or those who need someone to listen. As Western’s Ombudsperson, Meister has set a goal to increase awareness and communication about the confidential and impartial services at the Office of the Ombudsperson, providing a listening ear for student concerns.

The Office of the Ombudsperson recently released its annual review for 2014-15 showing Western continues to be in line with other universities and colleges, with a relatively low percentage of students citing concerns.

While the percentage of the student population visiting the Ombudsperson gradually increasing over the past five years, from 1.2 per cent in 2010-11 to 1.56 per cent in 2014-15 (including an increase from 573 in 2013-14 to 591 concerns in 2014-15), Meister credits this to increased awareness of the office and its services. Relative to the growing student population, she noted this number has not substantially changed over the past five years.

Of the overall number of visitors, the majority (88 per cent) were undergraduate students and the common concerns raised were about academic-related issues and administrative procedures. Only 15 per cent of the concerns (65 occurrences) were related to scholastic appeals.

“Substantively, there may be more students coming in, but relative to the increase of the student population at Western, the percentage has stayed the same,” Meister said. “We are a resource here for (students). We can be a first-stop when they have a question.”

Also, Western has assigned a staff member to the Council of Ontario University’s Academic Integrity Council of Ontario, which means educating students about academic integrity is no longer a primary focus of the Office of the Ombudsperson.

Mental health can be an influencing factor for students’ concerns and Meister encourages the university to re-examine its policies with this in mind.

“Mental health is a huge issue. I really want the university to look at the policies through the lens of mental health, and they are doing that,” she said, noting the amendments to Policy on Accommodation for Illness incorporates mental illness.

The major area of concern for graduate students was supervision (17.8 per cent of concerns), with progression concerns, sometimes linked to supervision, also high on the list (12 per cent).

In order to raise awareness of its services, the office launched a redesigned website, uwo.ca/ombuds/, and added a Facebook and Twitter presence last year.

In January, Ombudsman Ontario received jurisdiction for universities. However, Meister encourages the campus community to visit the Western office first, as it directly understands the university’s environment.

Moving forward, Meister plans to continue to educate the community about the role of the Ombudsperson and host events focused on raising awareness about university policies and appeals processes.

“We are an office for somebody to talk to and figure out what their options are,” Meister said. “It is important to us that (students) know we are not a student advocacy office, but we’re also not here to advocate for the university.

“At the end of the day we are all here for the success of the student.”