You gotta fight for your right to party

As well as being “providers” of education, universities are communities – and as social attitudes change, university officials have often found it difficult to keep up when it comes to the rules of that community.

Much of the student unrest in the seventies concerned what students saw as “authoritarian” discipline regimes. In 1970, students at Swansea arguing for changes to their archaic residence regulations were suspended for urging students not to sign a “good behaviour” pledge. At the University of East Anglia, a dispute over a student excluded for drug use spilled over into a long running occupation. And at the University of Warwick, a row over students’ union offices resulted in students occupying the university administrative buildings, where students discovered files on students which were found to contain “political” entries concerning student activists being punished. The was case eventually settled by Her Majesty the Queen, in the students’ favour.

Students were concerned that universities were exerting inappropriate power over them, and an NUS pamphlet in 1966 had argued that British justice allowed trial by one’s peers, and on these grounds suggested that students be included on any discipline committee. In the decade to follow, these and other disputes were settled via the adoption of this basic principle: students accepted that academics had full discretion in matters of academic judgement, but did not in principle have any special knowledge to bring to other non-academic matters of discipline. Students were to help decide the standards of conduct, participate in individual decisions about breaches and contribute to discussions about penalties. Democracy and leniency were the name of the game.

The relative size and homogeneity of the student body made these sorts of democratic, community-based approaches possible, but half a century later things have changed. We understand much better the sorts of abuses that these kinds of cultures can cover up, in everything from political sects to the film industry. Students call for “safe spaces” where debate takes place within specific guidelines to the bafflement of others. The demands now are not for democracy, leniency and involvement but for authoritarianism, “zero tolerance” and the removal of students from the burden of direct involvement in this responsibility. Some call this “illiberalism as a way to protect liberalism”, but who can blame students for demanding that their “student focused” university officials intervene on their behalf where other students cause them harm?

Tension on campus

Nowhere is this tension more visible – or rather, in reality, less visible – than in Universities UK’s new guidance on initiations. Serious physical harm from hazing in the UK appears to be rare, but everyone in mild proximity to old or elite student clubs knows an eyebrow-raising story or two about what goes on, and it’s a manifestation of what some call “woke” students in a battle with what others call “lad culture”.

The guidance comes a year on from a coroner’s report into the death of a student involved in an initiation at Newcastle University, who called for an outright prohibition on initiation events, an induction for all first-year students covering the risks of alcohol consumption, and training for all academic staff to reinforce those messages and generate “vigilance” over banned activities or events. While Universities UK’s recommendations are practically less universal than the coroner suggested, it’s what they don’t say that’s interesting.

What’s the problem?

To take action on outlawed behaviour you have to define it, so first is the question of what counts as problematic initiation-related activity. Most people – and policies – agree that students making other students to do dangerous things should be outlawed. But what if students voluntarily (and often initially enthusiastically) engage in what they would describe as “hedonistic” activity that’s “just a bit of fun”?

The guidance helpfully points out that there’s a continuum here, from forcing and coercing through to expecting, or even normalising. In context it makes sense for university, athletic union and students’ union policies to tend toward addressing the latter, but not only is that much harder to enforce, it’s also tough to turn around (and expensive to explain) a culture if an ancient or elite society has had those sorts of behaviours normalised for many years.

Leave me alone

Freedom to engage versus freedom of harm plays out in other ways too. Athletic unions and students’ unions are usually autonomous, with their own structures of membership, standards of conduct and procedures for discipline. And the student clubs and societies within them usually enjoy a degree of autonomy too – after all, students should run their own activities and learn from doing so. The Universities UK guidance points out that in any event a university “retains a responsibility for student conduct” and calls for “greater symmetry” across definitions, processes and sanctions, but this belies devilishly difficult practical realities.

You can either allow students’ unions, athletic unions or their clubs to be directly responsible for conduct offences up to a defined level of severity, or define their autonomy in relation to the context of an activity. In the former approach students’ unions retain legal responsibilities that they might reasonably believe are not satisfied by subcontracting up the work to a university that will legally be more cautious about punishment. In the latter, you run the risk of serious student harassment being investigated and judged by poorly resourced amateurs, punished only by a one match ban. And in either approach, regulations on use of personal data (GDPR) and privacy concerns often rub up against sensible information sharing.

You can’t make me

Then there’s the problem of noticing. In the world of work, most organisations’ HR policies promote the opportunity to report harassment – but some these days require anyone in authority that becomes aware of it to report that in too. The guidance stops short of recommending that student group committees or junior staff that hear about an initiation from being required to report it in, merely saying that folks “can and should” use the appropriate procedures.

But given the deep traditions involved, that alumni, junior staff and students in other groups may well have survived and thrived after their own initiation experience, and that there is genuine threat to clubs they’re close to – why would they? Without a threat for not reporting, club captains right up to sports directors will have much bigger incentives to deal with the issues in-house.

Power play

Since initiations are often about power, we also have to think about who has it – and who doesn’t. The guidance points out that “whenever a case on problem initiations emerges, there can be pushback from the students involved and their parents”, which is something of an understatement – you only have to look at the involvement of alumni in US hazing casework to see how affronted people can get.

Where procedures allow for legal representation (and it’s hard to refuse in these cases), we do have to think about how easy it is for “victims” to access equivalent support – and note that in cases like initiations, there may not be any discernible “victims” at all.

Hero to zero

Finally, there’s the old “zero tolerance pushes things underground” issue. The guidance points out that blanket bans can “push activities into private spaces… making them more dangerous” – and there’s many a sports sabbatical officer in a students’ union that urges an educational approach to initiations rather than a punitive one. They might be right – but the sector’s approach to the annual Spring Sports Tour (famously banned by the Mayor of Salou, and now in Croatia) deserves attention. Lots of things happen on tour – but not a lot of sport.

Some universities ban clubs from “tour” altogether, but students go on what they see as a social holiday anyway. Newcastle’s training material shifts the risk – the athletic union “takes NO responsibility for tours undertaken by individual clubs… taken at the individual clubs and individual members own risk… responsible for their own safety”. Others engage with tour operators on (usually physical) risk assessment. But given annually the sector sends ten thousand students out on what is ostensibly a week-long initiation, don’t we need a more coordinated approach?

Conduct

If you’re running a university, there are probably few contemporary university challenges more complex than the management of student conduct. Every month, previously unturned stones – hiding historic abuse, harassment, and harm – get upturned, apparently requiring universities to both prevent and prosecute problems that can’t easily be shifted to wider society’s institutions. There are lots of lawyers involved. The press has a view. Governors are exercised. One minute it’s sexual harassment. The next, online abuse. Racism needs a real response. Students’ behaviour in the local community. And now this.

Of course we should take action, but whisper it quietly – isn’t there starting to be too much to do? Perhaps rather than endless initiatives identifying particular aspects of problematic student behaviour (all of which apparently need their own “cross-institution” approach), don’t we need to take a step back and think carefully and strategically about the relationship between students, each other and their university in a mass age?

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