This article is more than 5 years old

Crime and punishment

Phil Pilkington looks at debates surrounding student discipline and the power that universities hold over students
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

One of the ways of reading recent discourse about students and their behaviour is that higher education should no longer be a place for the individual to explore unfettered new freedoms.

In fact, a component of the ‘culture war’ on universities is that they should be centres for discipline, control and scrutiny. A socialised form of learning might take place outside the university, but inside the university there is a contractual obligation on the student to be put under observation and assessment. The end result of a university experience (and one of the “services” the “customer” pays for) is to be judged. What would be the purpose of the university without deciding the worth and value of a student? That students so readily accept that universities should hold power over them is an interesting recent development.

It’s not so long ago that students campaigned against the use of university power over them.  Manchester students who campaigned against university investment in the apartheid regime were sent down. Warwick students that protested against management spying on its faculty members and students on behalf of employers’ organisations (see E P Thompson’s short paperback which has been republished as a Penguin Classic) had to appeal to Her Majesty the Queen against the disciplinary action as a “loyal request”. This appeal was to the Queen because, pre OIA, the university had failed to appoint a “visitor” to hear appeals. She graciously accepted the application to appeal and delegated the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, to hear the appellants; the appeal, submitted on vellum as required by the Lord Chamberlain, was won.


Over the years, the debate about a university’s tolerance for behaviour, and competence in addressing it, has waxed and waned. There are the pleas for universities to do more on cases of sexual harassment, and there are competing pleas that universities should leave such investigations to the police. There is the positive reinforcement of Bullingdon behaviours at some universities, whereas at other universities such behaviours are cases of gross misconduct followed by being removed.

Then there’s the “jolly good talking to” for the sports clubs and their initiations and bullying – “they’re learning, after all”. Such indulgences may not be extended when a black British student learns that it is not acceptable to carry a knife on campus. There is little equity across the sector for perpetrator or victim, and much hidden reinforcement of an ethos which may be barely understandable to students (or staff) – and that would also be unacceptable in most working environments.

Talk about discipline on campus rarely addresses the glaring problems in society – the racism, the sexism – their occurrences and particular manifestations on campus are treated separately with special scrutiny. The working assumption is that entry to university means that a student is “ready” and “understands”. Once accepted, they exist outside the restricted conditions and the causal effects of their background and origins. But this is a fanciful and insulting assumption – it suggests that students from leafy Bristol or private education have not been “affected” by their origins – but assumes that those from Sparkbrook have.

The result is that types of “bad behaviour” are subtly ranked and sorted. Offences originating from those previously excluded from higher education are condemned out of hand. Behaviours from the leafy suburbs may also not be at all pleasant with regard to racism and sexism, harassment and bullying. Yet this is behaviour which is to be tolerated, understood, and worked on.

Some students – those under the remit of codes of professional practice in the health and welfare professions – will be under greater scrutiny than others. The strictures on good personal conduct prior to entry on course can be so severe that students will not declare any form of criminal record, including police cautions which are not under the conditions of natural justice, and often incurred as a way to avoid further and weakly justified detention and questioning by the police. But not to be open about such ‘previous’ can be considered an offence by a professional practice panel even if the offence itself is of such a trivial nature and in the considerable past (such as suspicion of an affray in the adolescence of a mature student). And panels that play safe by not using their discretion impact on those groups more likely to have a record of cautions and convictions: male black youth.


Although disciplinary matters will cover a broader area than sexual misconduct (to include offensive texting, revenge porn, to assault and on to rape), it has been this area that has attracted most recent attention. It has been under-reported, insensitively handled and involves power relations between victim and perpetrator when implicating staff. The increase in the number of cases has also been caused by greater confidence of victims to report, and a clearer understanding of how to report within the institution.

Interesting research at a local level shows that academic staff have experienced sexual harassment as well as students and not reported it. Staff also have difficulties in knowing what to do on receiving a complaint – academic staff as tutors will often not have had induction sessions on policies and procedures, won’t know how to handle disclosures, and won’t know how to either signpost of refer complaints. Some staff will be more empathetic than others – but it is not a requirement.

Complexity and community

Of course, there can be failure and indiscipline brought about by ignorance by the perpetrator, the victim and those charged with protecting the victims. The scale and byzantine complexities of an institution’s general regulations on behaviour, academic regulations, ethical codes of conduct, use of IT, disciplinary codes for residences, the all-encompassing “bringing into disrepute”, a students’ union’s wide range of policies on good conduct from sports fixtures to alcohol on minibuses – all are great enough to create the specialisation of quasi-judicial services on campus. Ignorance is no excuse in law, but when there is an overwhelming lack of knowledge by all parties then there is doubt about the processes themselves and how they are applied.

Universities are themselves communities with expected levels of good conduct between members. This expectation might be called the ethical standards of the community, standards which have changed over the years by legislation and exposure to public scrutiny. But as well as the standards themselves changing, there is now an expectation that they will be enforced not socially, but centrally and quasi-judicially.

The power of universities over students is analytic to enrolment; the need is to ensure that the power is used in ways that are acceptable in the external environment. The jury is out whether that is always the case. In contrast to the lack of training and support in academia, a senior academic who was also a member of the magistrate’s bench noted that despite the extensive and continuous training and shadowing required for a JP, he had much more power over an individual as an academic with no training to negatively alter somebody’s life prospects. Preventing abuses of that power is crucial.

But as well as the power and process issues, there is the need for clarity and accessibility of the community’s ethical standards, which requires an explicit articulation and engagement with all members of the university. To some students, the ethical constitution of a university will be familiar, and inbred (as it were); to others it will be alien, or invisible. But the understanding of the principles of the ethos needs to be provided to those who have never had the opportunity to consider them.

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