Higher education postcard: regulations

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag carries a stern warning

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Salvete ex Oxonia – greetings from Oxford!

Here’s a jolly card celebrating the oddities of the University of Oxford’s statutes. And it may seem abstruse, but understanding a little of the history and rationale for such documents can help contextualise current issues in higher education.

The word university has a medieval origin – it derives from the Latin universitas, meaning a single corporate body, with power over its members, who in turn stood outside the civil law or the church law. And this was true in pre-modern times – a member of the university who had done wrong would be tried within the framework of the university’s statutes and regulations, not by the civil courts. This power was a real power, not simply a form of words. Some of the “town versus gown” troubles experienced in medieval university cities were derived in part from the perceived absence of justice when a university member (for example, a drunken student) committed a misdemeanour but was treated differently to his townsperson counterpart.

(And while we’re at it, remember the “Solvitur ambulando” card from a few weeks ago? This was the same principle in action – townspeople had to act via the university to gain satisfaction for student debts before graduation…)

Now as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben knew, with great power comes great responsibility. And this meant that universities had to make regulations to govern their members. Hence statutes like that quoted in the card – you absolutely don’t want students walking around with guns and crossbows without some sanction if they use them.

Now fast forward a few hundred years, and there’s a few more universities around the place. They’re still membership organisations (you’re admitted as a student, you attain a degree, or rank, of membership when you graduate) but they definitely aren’t outside the civil law. Yet they are still communities, and expected to behave as such. So universities had all sorts of regulations relating to behaviour and bringing the institution into disrepute.

This can seem, on the face of it, quite reasonable. If a student causes damage to a hall of residence, shouldn’t the university be able to impose sanctions? In Oxbridge, you used to have “rustication” – a temporary suspension or exclusion. Oscar Wilde was rusticated from Magdalen College, Oxford, for turning up three weeks after the term had started. Mark Boxer, at the time editor of Granta, the student magazine, was rusticated from King’s College, Cambridge, for publishing a poem deemed blasphemous.

And this is where the trouble begins, because that looks an awful lot like imposing an academic sanction for a non-academic misdemeanour. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) publishes a good practice framework for student disciplinary matters, and this includes the admonishment that “it is not normally appropriate to apply an academic penalty, such as withholding or withdrawing a degree, for a disciplinary offence that is unconnected with the student’s academic studies.”

The OIA’s good practice framework provides the bedrock of the Office for Students’ registration condition C2, which binds all registered providers in England. And condition C1 (yes, I know I’m going backwards, I often do) is underpinned by the Competition and Markets Authority guidance on consumer protection law for higher education, which advises that “the use of academic sanctions for non-tuition fee debts when applied in a blanket fashion and regardless of the circumstances, will be open to challenge under unfair terms legislation.”

All of which is a long way of saying that the University of Oxford’s prohibition on crossbows and blunderbusses probably wouldn’t hold up nowadays. Although this shouldn’t be taken as an invitation to students to acquire these things – the vice chancellor may not be able to act, but I’m pretty sure the civil powers wouldn’t be too impressed. It’s not like we’re living in a medieval society any more, is it?

As a final note, the real expert on medieval university regulations is Mike Ratcliffe. If ever you get a chance to listen to him on this topic, do so.

One response to “Higher education postcard: regulations

  1. I believe condition C2 binds regulated English providers to using the OIA scheme, but not necessarily the Good Practice Framework

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