Taking action on complaints in SUs

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Today we’re launching a new project aimed at helping students’ unions to navigate the challenges of student complaints.

Much of what is published about the so-called campus “culture wars” appears to have been written by people who’ve not spent any time interacting or listening to actual students.

There’s little actual evidence that students spend all day trying to cancel others, are anti-free speech, or are opposed to debate. And as “No Platform” historian Evan Smith pointed out this week, people complaining that universities are no longer the “idyllic bastions of academic freedom that they once were” is not a recent trope.

But one phenomenon that does appear to be true is that students are increasingly raising complaints about other students – and where that concerns the activities or office holders of students’ unions or their clubs and societies, that is creating real pressure on staff and officer teams.

There are two ways to “read” the increases. One is to argue that where students would previously have collectively self-regulated their own behaviour, now they are unfairly asking authority figures to do that for them in an unsustainable way. As such they lose the ability to call each other out, and we end up in endless quasi-legal processes over quarrels that previously would have sorted over a coffee.

The other is to argue that previously, serious cases of harassment and sexual misconduct were left unaddressed, and having better defined what counts as unacceptable behaviour, there is now rightly an onus on bodies like universities and SUs to tackle it now that students are calling it out in complaints.

Both of the above are probably true. But either way, what should SUs do now as the volume and complexity of complaints cases increases?

A selection of concerns

There are a whole range of issues that have popped up over the past few years that it would be wise to seek to resolve.

First there’s the issue of multiple processes and policies. If a student is an employee of the SU, works over the summer for the university at Open Days, is involved in running a society and a sports club and lives in halls, in some universities that’s six different disciplinary procedures – and in some cases six different definitions of misconduct – that we’re expecting students to understand. Gaps, overlaps and double jeopardy can all be a problem – as can jurisdiction.

If complaints are handled separately by six separate departments – all respecting data protection principles – there’s a danger that someone won’t “join the dots” when they should. And why should one part of the campus define harassment differently to another?

There’s the issue of standards. Most SUs would demand high standards of training of their university when it comes to investigations or panels. But where SUs investigate complaints, are SUs able to meet those standards themselves?

It’s right that students see the SU as being led by students. But does that mean that they trust the SU to handle any complaint they might have fairly – especially if high profile elected officers are in some way involved in the process?

Some SUs refer cases onto the university on the basis of context – was the issue “about” the SU or one of its groups or events or not? Others refer cases onto the university on basis of severity – but do you trust the university to handle what is a duty of care issue for your SU effectively? And if you find someone has breached your code of conduct, what if the worst that can happen to that student is they can’t take part in SU activity? In some cases shouldn’t they lose student privileges too?

Lots of SUs struggle with group issues and group complaints. Can or should SUs “punish” a whole group or club? Can or should you prevent from clubs and socs from trying to run their own processes? Where is the appropriate balance between “culture change” and “punishment”? When should SUs refer a case to the Police? And if a case comes in through a university “Report+Support” site, is the SU informed? Should it be? In what circumstances?

There are plenty of other issues – who “represents” students involved in complaints from an individual advocacy point of view, how sabbatical complaints are handled, and how appeals should work. Do small and specialist SUs have the resources to do any of this effectively? And as volume and complexity increases, what kinds of legal and development support do staff need who end up charged with processing these sorts of issues?

Taking action to help SUs

There will be more. You may have experience of complex cases that it would be useful to reflect on, and you might have condumdfrtums or puzzles in this area you’re worried about. In any event, we want to hear from you.

First, we’re running an online briefing event on Friday 12th November at 2.00pm to explain and frame the project in more detail. Do make sure you send along a staff member and if possible an officer if you can.

Second, we’re looking for volunteers to join a steering group for the project. We’re keen to hear from a diverse range of roles across SUs for a roughly 4 meeting commitment. Let us know today if you’re interested in helping out.

In a few weeks’ time, we’ll open up some evidence gathering sessions where we’ll be keen to see your processes and capture concerns and reflections that you have in this space.

We’ll also be engaging with stakeholders in the sector to make sure we understand some of the relationship issues that this kind of issue can generate.

And we’ll also be encouraging you to do your own “serious case review” – looking back over the past few years’ of complaints your SU might have handled or referred to see if there are lessons that can be learned from your own experiences.

If you have ideas, thoughts, feedback or areas you hope the work will cover, do get in touch – and we look forward to seeing you at the webinar on Friday 12th.

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