Now would be a very bad time to treat students like children

Wonkhe readers will know that wonks are always interested in the unanticipated or unintended consequences of policy.

You might know that you want to implement a quarantine on incoming flights to tackle Covid-19 – but what happens to postgraduate admissions? You might insist we need to make all teaching online in the first term – but would that have an impact on retention?

Whether policy is good or not in terms of its original purpose, you always have to worry about the ripples in the pond.

But what about when policy is forced to have consequence in an area where, frankly, it was never meant to – rare examples where very sensible (or at least rational) policy is contorted in ways that were never intended or considered at point of creation?

Extreme interpretations

This once-in-a-century pandemic has caused most of us to generously interpret some things in extremis: flexible working policies, assessment guidelines, and so on.

I suspect that we all recognised that university leaders were usually making the best of terrific complexity and unpredictability – and we let strict adherence to policy…flex…a bit. We gave and got. Every institution relies on trust and goodwill to keep functioning in the absence or impracticality of existing policy. We can forgive a lot, if we trust and respect intentions.

When it was published, this thought piece on the implications of lifting the lockdown for student conduct from a few weeks ago was very interesting, and definitely food for thought. So imagine the surprise at Durham SU this week when the regular all student email gave us this gem:

Unfortunately, we continue to be contacted by extremely concerned residents and other local stakeholders regarding students who have returned to Durham City and are not adhering to government guidance.

Reported breaches of Covid-19 regulations, including hosting and inviting others to house parties, will lead to direct intervention from the Police and fines may be immediately imposed.

The Police also report their actions to the University so that university disciplinary processes can be implemented as appropriate.”

There’s clearly a concern from local representatives that it would be churlish to shrug off. Durham, not uniquely, is a small City with a population who don’t want to catch a disease brought by other folks travelling from across the UK. Local representatives and residents have been working well with student leaders and university colleagues to address shared concerns with real hope, before we entered lockdown, that we might be able to move past “regulate everything” approaches to community development, and into shared interests and partnership work – community cohesion, if you will.

Student discipline is a regular discussion item on this site. Students unions have long been advocating that universities’ meet their responsibility to act in students’ interests when they’re off campus and use their discipline policies appropriately. Here’s a proposal that – in relation to Covid-19 – they do just that.

Not like that

So what’s different in this example? For me, it boils down to pretty basic policy questions: Will it work? And is it the right thing to do?

In difficult times, folks respect authority (it’d help if we understood what the authorities wanted us to do, of course) and when the goal is to remove dangerous people from the university community because of things done off campus, then using student disciplinary policies is absolutely proper.

But if the intention is to ensure adherence to public health guidelines and reduce transmission of disease, then we have to use different tools.

There’s the inevitable truth, which often escapes community groups, that if you treat folks like children they will act as children. Any policy which sets out the ways grown-ups can report bad behaviour to other grown-ups, so the kids can get told off, is infantilising. Adults spoken to in terms of their responsibility have a better chance of meeting our expectations.

So if we ignore the “unintended” consequences for mental health, academic success, local economics, and so on, then my best understanding of the intention of that email above is that university authorities thought that a fear of being told off would ensure compliance with public health guidance – and keep students meekly in their bedrooms, alone.

There will be people cleverer than me that can advise on the best way to ensure good public health, but I know something designed to appease The Letter Writers when I see it.

Communities of adults

And is it the right thing to do? This isn’t really about the improper use of authority (it felt a bit obvious) but rather the principle that universities are communities of adults, staff and students together – not a community of adult academics who work in close proximity to a creche. Communities decide things together. Better policy is developed together.

Student leaders participate in their Academic Boards or Senates and develop and agree university discipline policies because they absolutely know that plagiarism, or assault, should have consequences, and it’s right that policies must exist to address academic and non-academic conduct that falls below standard.

But no student (or academic or professional staff member, tbh) who participated in drafting these policies could ever have intended that they be used for this purpose. The goodwill that students have given their institutions to interpret policies sensibly in unusual times relies on those institutions not making daft overreaches like that latest one at Durham.

There are so many good conversations happening, at our university and across the country, about how we keep campuses safe, and these need to be widened to include takes on safer communities. For these to succeed, we need to do better than reaching for networks of grown-ups to tell off the kids.

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