What does zero tolerance really mean?

Misconduct has always been an issue for students, but has been hitting the headlines recently.

When major incidents take place, the need to display an urgent response often generates nuanced, well thought through, and critically, well- resourced responses from sector bodies or institutions. The question is, away from the more serious cases, how do institutions practice ‘zero tolerance’ to such behaviours day to day?

Pledge card

There have been numerous pledges and commitments to having a ‘zero- tolerance’ approach to misconduct. The trouble is, for many of us it just sounds like a well-rehearsed platitude. After all, which institution would not have a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to harassment, hate crime or misconduct? Numerous campaigns and thousands of pounds of funding later, students are still falling through the gaps.

Efforts to diversify campuses and allow ethnic minority students to study free of fear and flourish at institutions needs to involve appropriate protection from institutions. The challenge is that students are asking for protection from racism from institutions that are historically racist. Coupled with ignorance, this leads to very different interpretations of ‘zero tolerance’. Some fine. Some suspend. Some expel. Most do all three, inconsistently.

Often this is not seen as a priority from senior leadership until it becomes a wider reputational risk, and results in action being taken reactively rather than proactively. Reactive responses often result in systems that are copied, but not properly tailored, to the institution in question. Working in a proactive way allows for consultation and necessary debates to take place to reach well-reasoned conclusions with a more thorough linked up approach for students.

I’m not sure

There appears to be an uncertainty at times when talking about the experience of minority students – mainly due to the lack of knowledge and in some cases reluctance to “get it wrong” or paint an institution “in a bad light”. Naturally, then the gap of knowledge becomes a huge challenge when trying to convey the experience of students and asking for change. An acknowledgement of shortfalls in information would be far more constructive in moving towards a solution and a better experience for students at their campuses.

A well- known concern is the lack of joined up approach when dealing with incidents. Systems of support are ad hoc, policies and procedures don’t link up and services across the institution don’t talk to each other. It’s often much easier for someone hearing an allegation to attempt to deal with it “locally” than do the right thing and refer it “up” – who wants their area to be seen in a bad light? But the inconsistency of application, representation, and support on offer results in huge disparities of results across case outcomes. Victims often need to navigate a convoluted process and haphazard support – and there are further challenges with bias in the decision making process and the representation of students in it.

Universities often don’t have appropriate reporting methods, training, and resources to sufficiently investigate cases and this can be due to a variety of different reasons – from a lack of financial resources to lack of will. And away from implementing new systems, sometimes there is even a reluctance to call out lecturers who “have always been like that”. The lack of understanding and gaslighting of these issues at a top level, alongside these types of responses is a guaranteed way to ensure the same culture is perpetuated.

ZX Spectrum

Misconduct is often viewed on a spectrum that requires different responses from institutions. Consequences need to appropriately respond to the actions in question. From a university’s point of view, the continuous expulsion of students for misconduct may not represent a “measured” zero-tolerance approach, nor does it do much (*sigh*) to benefit their finances or protect them from legal blowback from students. However, the lack of expulsions and strong action taken to penalize perpetrators is disheartening, and presents yet another signal to ethnic minority students of being up against an institution that is not working for them.

The way in which we punish students in disciplinary systems is a debate between restorative and the more traditional retributive approach. Even where continuous expulsions have not been pursued, suspensions and fines are also not appropriate. The alternative approach would be a sustained restorative approach of education taking into account people’s backgrounds and an understanding of why they hold such beliefs. But who would undertake this challenge? Would the approach change if there was more serious case of misconduct that suddenly hit the headlines? And could this be done earlier so students as they arrive begin working on the same level playing field? An optional online module on diversity isn’t going to cut it now are campuses are becoming increasingly diverse.

Tailoring matters

Navigating an appropriate response to misconduct is full of moving parts that institutions need to tailor for their context – it needs work. The hope would be that there is a desire to support minority students in their pursuit of higher education. And even if you’re not motivated by hope, the potential damage to reputation is another reason to pursue this as a priority. Either way, it requires a bold vision of dealing with some long- held beliefs that may well have come to be embedded in parts of the institution.

And sector bodies have a role to play too. When DfE first consulted on OfS’ regulatory framework and its approach to regulating providers, it committed to focusing its attention and resources on the “most risky areas” and aspects of provision, including where the “market alone” will deliver insufficient outcomes for both students and society. Its primary example was its approach to access and participation. But surely given reputational risk the “market alone” won’t deliver the right response on hate and harassment? Shouldn’t OfS be requiring institutions to address this area too?

Overall, imagine what institutions would look like if they approached the sustained support of the minority experience with as much zest and enthusiasm as they do recruiting ethnic minorities. It would finally allow students to believe commitments to diversity – not just as empty platitudes, but a clear acknowledgement of the benefit they bring to the overall learning experience.

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