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How do we persuade students to behave themselves this coming term?

Jim Dickinson has been reading draft university community Covid compacts - and fancies a game of "kebabathon" instead.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the things I’m not clear on in the multiple stories of campus reopenings gone wrong from the US is the scale of what we might call the “ill behaviour”.

Take those photos on social media of students gathering at 2am on a patch of grass, unmasked, drinking from kegs. Is there 50 of them from a residence block of 500, or 450? The former would indicate that we’ll have a tricky first few weeks but a “possible” term. The latter might suggest that students will be reasonably directly blamed for a local lockdown. And everything in between.

If it’s the former – and all my instincts tell me that it at least could be the former – there’s some clear steps to take to get there. We’ll need things for students to do (like this fun forest they’ve put together at York) rather than assume they’ll actually just watch Netflix and “chill”, alone, in a pokey room. We’ll need to let student groups book some rooms of an evening rather than an enforced lock up at dusk. We’ll need oodles of empathy, some community leadership, real resource and sympathetic policing (with as small a “p” as possible).

We’ll also need some very clever comms people. The road to welcome week is littered with well meaning but fruitless attempts at campaigns to persuade students to refrain from what some of them would regard as risky or hedonistic but ultimately fairly harmless activities. Just ask Danny Timpson. And – knowing what we know from every stage of the lockdown and its easing out in the real world since March – we’ll need absolute clarity, and as much consistency as we can find, on the rules we’re trying to communicate.

Ideally we’d collaborate – it seems we can when we want to. But instead, the initiative that’s super-spreading its way around the sector like Covid-19 at a pre-drinks is the development of institution-specific student conduct documents for the pandemic. Variously labelled “agreements”, “compacts”, “community pledges” or “charters”, the drafts doing the rounds all have a go at setting out students’ responsibilities to each other and the wider community – as well as (they are reciprocal agreements after all) setting out a university’s responsibilities.

In their tone and form, the ones I’ve seen so far very much remind me of the student charters initiative of January 2011. And the danger for the sector and for students is that they end up having just as little impact.

Cash in the attic

For those with a box full of higher education policy pamphlets from the past, we are specifically not referring here to the 1993 “Charter for Higher Education”, published in the slipstream of John Major’s “Citizen’s Charter” initiative – a handy way of avoiding doing any actual governing when you have a tiny majority.

We’re instead referring to the 2010/11 coalition government initiative to investigate and make recommendations on the preparation, design and use of student charters and other forms of agreement between students and universities. There’s a fun press notice here detailing a working group of all the big names, and a final report here – all from back when the culture wars weren’t a thing and when students’ unions were viewed by (even a partly Tory) government as helpful and valuable rather than the source of “niche activism”.

To cut a long story short, everyone wrote one, some updated them, most forgot about them and for some reason Wales made them mandatory. And understanding why they failed and pretty much disappeared is key to understanding why the same could be about to happen, but with potentially much more damaging consequences.

Short and sweet

What exactly are we talking about? In the charter group’s final report, charters are described as “short, clear statements of student rights and responsibilities, so students know broadly what they should be able to expect, what is required of them, and what to do if things do not meet expected standards”.

There’s a lot going on in that sentence. The initiative was part of a suite of measures that Universities Minister David Willetts was deploying to solve his “ministers moan to me about the lack of contact hours their niece is getting when I go to Cabinet” problem, back in the days before the Competition and Markets Authority (then the Office of Fair Trading) had clarified that students are consumers. Things like the “Key Information Set” were all part of the same plan – universities would compete over course and institution features, and students would get the ability to challenge if these were promised and not delivered.

As soon as the working group started work, what became clear is that the Goliaths on the group were having none of this “David’s rights” stuff. Forging a Faustian pact with academics who saw consumerism as uncouth, pressure was placed to ensure two things:

  • First, that student “responsibilities” would be as important a component as rights in the documents – somehow the relationship between a large university and an individual student was one to be framed as one of mutual equals.
  • Second, the “short, clear statements” stuff was code for “this musn’t be legally worth the paper it’s not written on”. In other words, while the agreements could consist of warm words, they were only to signpost to more complex documents and regulations and shouldn’t end up being something a student might actually rely on.

So important was this to the group at the time that there’s a section in the final report labelled “legal opinion” that recommends that an impenetrable disclaimer is inserted to any document developed that includes the line that the charter “it is not intended either to define or limit the legal rights and responsibilities of [insert name of institution], the [insert name of students’ union] and each student.”

There’s also a fascinating line on the general legal status of such documents:

It would ultimately be for the courts to construe and determine the legal status of a Student Charter. It may be that a court would say that a Student Charter was not intended to be a legally binding document in itself and/or that certain provisions are too general to be contractually enforceable.

Equally, it would be unwise for an institution or students’ union to include a statement in its Student Charter which is untrue (or not capable of being undertaken or performed) or which is not reflected in the services provided by, or the regulations governing, the institution given the possibility of someone seeking to base a claim upon that document.

So what has all of that got to do with the current Covid/community drafts doing the rounds?

Neither one thing nor another

On the one hand, an agreement that isn’t binding on students doesn’t really help us. In the absence of mass compulsory testing, there is an important need, for example, to find ways to persuade students to declare their symptoms and get a test. A sentence on a document like this is some distance from the sticks or carrots required to achieve the necessary behavioural shift.

On the other, if these documents were framed as binding, that would necessitate some of the university-side commitments being things students could rely on too. But which university wants to “guarantee” a “safe” campus, a consistent supply of hand sanitiser or even “clear communications”?

Crucially, there’s a link between these two things. If i’m a student that plays by the rules, and I watch a university that’s issued one of these compacts turn multiple blind eyes to infractions – wouldn’t I have a decent case for legal action on the university failing to protect students/staff and failing in its promise to protect the educational provision I’ve signed up to pay for if said infractions cause the campus to close?

Is it wise for a city with three universities to end up with three different agreements? Have we solved those jurisdiction issues around conduct that occurs off campus? Are we issuing new ones if there’s a local lockdown?

Oh and by the way. Back in June I started collecting drafts from North American universities that spent much longer consulting on theirs. And they absolutely have not worked – if anything their existence and their role in raising unrealistic community expectations has been counterproductive.

It’s all about the process

To work, behaviour change initiatives need some education, some individual incentives, some threats and punishments and real work on (re)setting norms.

Agreements like this can play a role, but it’s a minor one – and what any of the text books would tell you is that the real value in them is where the stakes are fairly low, and where the process of consultation and involving those they affect in their development is more important than the final document. Here though the stakes are high, and asking the SU President, over the summer, to change the wording of another university’s draft doesn’t really count as involving who we’d need to for the process to have that kind of impact.

As such – surely it would save us all some (screen) time and dwindling energy if UUK just published a national one and everyone put their logo on it – so we can all get on with the hard work of working out, with our partners in every university town and city, what we’ll do if it all goes wrong?

4 responses to “How do we persuade students to behave themselves this coming term?

  1. Seatbelts, drink driving, smoking in pubs – all seem to suggest that a change in public opinion will follow legislation (regulation) on behaviour but won’t happen in its absence. It looks like a Hobbesian covenant – I recognise that it’s in everybody’s interests if everybody sticks to the rules, but I’ll only feel bound if I know someone’s making everyone else do it too. In this context, who’s going to be the Sovereign?

  2. Exactly right. No-one is going to be taken for a sucker if they can’t be sure that others will cooperate too. This was clearly illustrated by the consequences of Dominic Cummings’s exercise in self-exemption.

  3. The usual HE examination of a problem, criticising all attempts at a solution, without actually suggesting a potentially workable alternative or any positive encouragement to those who might try.

  4. I think the academic solution that was concluded months ago was that moving all activities online was the best way to mitigate the potential risk of in-person teaching and close proximity living.
    All that is left is to raise awareness of the likelihood of the failure of this course of action

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