Recent high profile court battles, such as the “Wagatha Christie” libel trial between Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy, may have convinced many that formal dispute resolution processes, by their adversarial nature, almost inevitably damage relationships beyond repair – and often cause further harm to the parties, and their wider circle of friends and family, beyond that arising from the initial disagreement itself.
In addition, whilst the victor may feel some temporary elation, all too often, the outcome can feel unsatisfactory for all sides, the imposing of judgment and remedy by a third-party taking power away from the disputants themselves.
Many teams within higher education institutions and their SUs will have experience managing the disagreements that inevitably arise within their student and staff communities. Unresolved conflict will usually lead to considerable negative impacts upon the wellbeing, mental health and performance of those involved, with some disagreements escalating to formal complaints and grievances, potentially even disciplinary breaches, with the consequent impacts upon retention, employability and graduate outcomes.
At the University of Warwick, a successful pilot has been offering peer mediation to staff and students who are in conflict as an alternative to formal, often adversarial, processes or to leaving disagreements to fester unaddressed.
Is mediation the answer?
Despite only forming in February 2021, Warwick Mediation has trained over sixty Warwick students, and SU and university staff in mixed cohorts (often alongside staff and students from other universities) to be nationally and internationally accredited mediators, retaining a core team of around twenty volunteer peer mediators, drawn from across the staff and student body, who offer peer mediation to staff and students who can contact the service directly or be referred by teams such as Human Resources, Student Discipline, the Students’ Union and Residential Life. The service is offered free to users.
It has been very successful – with excellent feedback from the disputants using the services. University and SU teams value being able to point to an alternative to formal processes, and from the peer mediators who have enhanced their confidence and employability by not only gaining internationally recognised mediation qualifications but also building valuable transferable skills, experience and confidence assisting staff and students in conflict.
The promotion of the service has also raised awareness amongst students, as future professionals and leaders, of the benefits of mediation, which it is hoped will begin a societal move away from undue reliance upon litigation and other formal, adversarial processes.
It has quickly become embedded within the university, in large part due to its close alignment with the university’s values of inclusion and collaboration, respect and communication. The service aims to resolve conflict through dialogue, giving space for individuals to be heard, and empowering those in dispute to work together towards their own solution.
How it works
The service enables those in dispute to work with an impartial, trained peer mediator to create a confidential space where the parties in dispute feel free to share how they feel and what they need, and the parties decide what steps they can each take to heal the conflict and move forward.
Mediation is voluntary and confidential (unless there are safeguarding concerns), with parties being free to exit the process at any point, reverting to more formal action if they choose.
Any agreement is formed by the parties themselves, rather than being imposed by the mediator, or any other third party, which means future actions are more likely to be realistic, tolerable and long-lasting.
Agreements are confidential to the parties although when the matter has been referred by an SU or University team, Warwick Mediation asks the parties to allow the mediator to keep the referrer updated about the dates of meetings and to share an agreed statement from the parties at the end of the matter to enable the SU or university team to offer support as the mediation continues and to close their file if an agreement is reached.
Volunteer peer mediators must have passed a five-day course, accredited by the Civil Mediation Council and International Mediation Institute, and work in pairs enabling newly trained mediators to work alongside experienced mediators to gain experience and confidence.
Students in dispute are assisted by student mediators, staff by staff mediators and issues between staff and students dealt with by a mixed pair of staff and student mediators.
At present the meetings are held online as feedback has clearly signalled that parties generally find the process less stressful if they can be in their own space with no chance of meeting the other party unexpectedly. Being online, the meetings are also easier to schedule, particularly out of term time when students may have returned home.
Successes of the services
The services have seen multiple successes – participants rated Warwick Mediation 5/5 on all metrics for excellence in service, 100% of participants would recommend Warwick Mediation to a friend, and even when joint meetings were not needed, participants appreciated having a service to approach to discuss the conflict they were experiencing
Self-help resources are available online, including “housemate agreements” to help prevent conflict arising. “Conflict Management” and “Relationship restoring” workshops are available for staff and students, including a series for PGRs and supervisors. And the service can be used to help resolve “town and gown” issues, most often arising between students and local residents around noise and other anti-social behaviour.
One high profile success for Warwick Mediation has been the mediation it arranged that concluded a long-running student protest by Protect Warwick Women (PWW) to the satisfaction of all parties and met many of the protesters’ calls for far-reaching changes to University policy and practice around campus sexual harm. The mediation took place over a year ago, and the agreement has remained in place, respected by all parties.