Higher education

The Privy Council has a role in areas of higher education, having responsibilities both under the Royal prerogative and by statute.

Older (pre-1992) universities operate under a Royal Charter, which sets out their overall constitution, and statutes, which give more detail as to how the university should operate in practice. The Privy Council is responsible for advising Her Majesty on universities’ proposals to amend their Charter, and itself approving amendments to the statutes.

A university wishing to make such amendments to its constitution is advised to approach the Privy Council Office informally once it is reasonably certain what changes it wishes to make, but before formally agreeing the changes, so that informal consultations can take place with the Privy Council’s advisers. Following a formal resolution by the university and submission of the textual amendments, the Privy Council formally considers the proposals which are normally approved by Orders in Council (Charters) or Orders of Council (statutes). The formal submission should take the form of a signed and sealed resolution, and three copies, as well as an explanatory memorandum on the purpose and effect of the changes. An electronic form of the amendments should also be provided.

Most newer (post-1992) universities and certain other higher education institutions operate under an Instrument of Government and Articles of Government. Any amendments to these documents need the approval of the Privy Council.

The Privy Council is also responsible, under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, for approving the use of the word ‘university’ (including ‘university college’) in the title of a higher education institution, and may also approve an institution as competent to grant degrees.

A number of appointments to governing bodies of Chartered universities are made by the Privy Council. In making such appointments, the Privy Council is concerned to see that due account is taken to include women and those from ethnic minorities among the candidates, with a view to a balanced representation on the governing body as a whole. However, Privy Council appointments are expected gradually to be phased out in consultation with the universities during the next few years.

The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (commonly known as the Dearing Report) made a number of recommendations in 1997 and the Government published its response in 1998. As a result some changes have been made in how universities are run, e.g. smaller and clearly identified governing bodies. In addition, the title of ‘university college’ is available not only to colleges which are fully part of a university but also to higher education institutions with the power to award taught degrees.

In Scotland, older universities operate under Royal Charters, while certain newer higher education institutions have governance documents which are the subject of statutory instruments. The Privy Council approves changes to both types of constitution. The very old Scottish Universities have Ordinances which are approved by the Privy Council under the Scottish Universities Acts.

Petitioning the Visitor

In certain cases, if a member of the university’s academic staff is aggrieved by an act or omission of a university, he or she may petition the Visitor for redress. The President of the Council exercises the visitor’s jurisdiction on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen concerning 16 Universities and Colleges. This note sets out information which should be useful for staff thinking of submitting a petition to the President of the Council in this role.

Changes to the Visitor’s jurisdiction were made by the Higher Education Act 2004. The Visitor no longer has any jurisdiction to consider complaints made by students or former students (or complaints made in respect of an application for admission), or from members of the academic staff in relation to an employment dispute. The Visitor’s jurisdiction is limited to adjudicating on petitions from members of the university’s academic staff on the interpretation and application of the institution’s Charter, Statutes, Ordinances etc, provided the point at issue is not an employment dispute.

The Visitor has no jurisdiction whatsoever concerning complaints by students or former students or complaints in respect of an application for admission, regardless of the nature of the complaint. Student complaints are now dealt with by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). Details of how to submit a complaint to OIA can be found on their website.

General background information

The Visitor may consider a petition from a member of the academic staff of a qualifying institution (see list of institutions) only if the matter has been raised internally within the institution and the petitioner has been informed that a final decision has been taken.

The Visitor’s role is to review the application by the University of its own internal procedures in dealing with the petitioner’s grievance. The Visitor will not normally intervene unless it can be shown that the University has failed to observe its own rules or procedures; or that, although it has followed the proper procedures, it has reached a decision that no reasonable body (properly directing itself, and taking account of all relevant factors) could have arrived at.

If a preliminary examination indicates that there is a prima facie case the petition will be sent to the institution for its answer, on which the petitioner will have an opportunity to comment. Cases are normally determined on the papers.

Petitions should be addressed to:

The Clerk of the Council
Privy Council Office
Room G/04
1 Horse Guards Road

and should be clearly marked “Petition to the Visitor”.

Institutions for which the President of the Council acts as Visitor

University of Birmingham
University of Bristol
University of Hull
Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine
University of Keele
University of Leeds
University of Leicester
University of Liverpool
University of London (but not all Colleges – check with the relevant institution before submitting a petition)
University of Nottingham
University of Reading
University of Sheffield
University of Southampton
University of Sussex
University of Wales (check with the relevant institution before submitting a petition)


The Visitor no longer has jurisdiction over student complaints. These should be submitted to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE).