What is an ombudsperson?

An ombudsperson (also known as an ombudsman or ombuds) is concerned with the right of every person to be treated fairly.  The ombudsperson helps to resolve problems and conflicts at no cost to the complainant.

Ombuds offices are founded on the principles of independence, impartiality, accessibility and confidentiality.  Many have the ability to investigate and recommend and promote changes to practices and regulations, and help to hold institutions accountable. They are guided by a commitment to fair treatment and fair process.

There is no standard qualification to become an ombudsperson at this time. However, certain skills are essential for an ombudsperson, including excellent listening and analytical skills, as well as a keen sense of fairness and sound judgment.   Ombudspersons come from a variety of backgrounds, such as, student services, law, social work, and academic disciplines.

What does a college or university ombudsperson do?

Currently over 40 Canadian universities and colleges have ombuds offices.  There is considerable diversity in practice with roughly 2/3 serving students only, and the remaining  third serving faculty, staff and students. The ombudsperson at a university or college may

  • investigate complaints of unfair treatment in an impartial and objective manner
  • is concerned with the rights of every person to be treated fairly
  • has the power to recommend solutions when complaints are well-founded
  • when complaints are unfounded, explains why
  • acts as a source of information and advice on rules and procedures
  • helps to identify systemic problems and weaknesses in institutional policy and practice
What if my institution doesn’t have an ombuds office yet? Why should we consider one?

An ombuds office can help your institution:

  • Convey their commitment to fair process and fair outcome
  • Promote a constructive approach to conflict resolution
  • Help avoid potentially long and costly appeals and litigation processes
  • Help formal processes run more smoothly
  • Provide a user-friendly source of information about policies, rights and avenues of redress
  • Help identify policy weaknesses and gaps in the system
How many college and university offices are there in Canada?

There are currently 41 members of ACCUO, representing 25 universities and 8 colleges.

What qualifications do you need to be an ombudsperson?

Members of ACCUO come from a variety of backgrounds – law, social work, academic disciplines, student services and other fields. At this point in time, there is no standard qualification to be an ombudsperson. However, certain skills are essential: ombudspersons are good listeners, have excellent analytical skills, and a keen sense of fairness and sound judgement.

What is the most common problem that ombudspersons handle?

The mix of cases varies somewhat from institution to institution. These differences can reflect differences in the mandates of ombuds office at different institutions – some ombudspersons deal with landlord/tenant problems, sexual harassment, or with staff and faculty problems as well as student issues. A survey of members conducted in spring 1996 revealed that complaints about teaching or course management and cases involving academic appeals were the most common for most practitioners in Canadian educational institutions.

How is an ombudsperson different from a lawyer?
  • An ombudsperson is an impartial party, not an advocate.
  • Typically an ombudsperson works with institutional policies and procedures, rather than the law.
  • There is no fee for using the services of an ombudsperson in a college or university.
  • While some ombudspersons may have legal training, this is not a requirement of the job, and even the ombudsperson with legal training refrains from acting as a lawyer and giving legal advice when serving as an ombudsperson.
Is an ombudsperson the same as a mediator?

No. Some ombudspersons have qualified as mediators through training programs, and mediation may be an approach to problem solving adopted by the individual practitioner in some cases. But while a mediator typically remains neutral throughout the mediation process in order to facilitate agreement between the parties, an ombudsperson is impartial at the outset but may come to a conclusion on the merits of a case following an investigation.