Franchising, collegiate colleges and harassment and sexual misconduct

One of the questions that arises out of ongoing coverage of allegations of misconduct at Drama schools is that of responsibility for both prevention, and complaint investigation and disciplinary processes.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In its consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education from January 2020, OfS refers to Para 65 of its regulatory framework insofar as lead providers subcontracting (or “franchising”) all or part of a course to a delivery provider “retain responsibility” for the students on those courses. This, it says, means that:

Therefore, the OfS considers that a provider is responsible for protecting all students registered with it or with other providers delivering its courses under a sub-contractual arrangement.

And that:

We would expect a provider to investigate (for example, as a disciplinary matter) complaints made in relation to any of these students.

The problem is that unlike with things like academic appeals, “the university takes it on” appears to be more straightforward to write down than it is to actually implement. And that ought to be a concern – given that we can assume there has been a marked increase in the number of students studying under a franchised arrangement since OfS registration requirements made it difficult for previously university-validated alternative providers to register under their own steam.

Consider the case of a Drama school that has a suite of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, a handful of its own diplomas and also delivers some other validated qualifications. Let’s imagine that two of the degrees have franchise arrangements in place with two different universities. Is OfS suggesting that an incident should be investigated under the university’s procedures? What if a student at the college on a University A programme complains about a student on a University B programme, or one of the college’s diplomas?

You would have to assume that in practice the lead partner in the franchise arrangement instead takes steps to ensure that the college being franchised to has effective arrangements in place. But does it? Is that due diligence carried out before new partnerships are approved? Against what criteria? What does ongoing monitoring look like? What happens if two of the lead partners have different standards in place, or different definitions of misconduct?

And what is reported to the governing body of the lead partner in stats – are incidents at partner colleges involving “their” students included? Why not all incidents at the provider (you can make a good case for that for obvious reasons)? Can students routinely appeal a decision made by the college? What oversight is being exercised right now by the higher education lead partners of this collection of Drama schools?

It’s obviously not just Drama schools either. There’s hundreds of franchise partnerships across the UK with both alternative and FE providers where it’s straightforward to work out the responsibilities for academic appeals or complaints, but actually very difficult (arguably unforgivably difficult) to work out where processes and responsibilities lie for prevention of and running processes around harassment and sexual misconduct complaints about staff and students.

You can, of course, throw TNE, placement and year abroad providers into that mix too – and collegiate structures.

Noting the “report + support” controversies in the press, I had a run the other day at trying to understand the complaint processes that would/should apply at Cambridge.

Its press office told me that the university and colleges are separate legal and financial institutions, who each have their own complaint policies:

  • Where a student has a complaint about another student, they have the right to submit a complaint to the university or the relevant college of the student they are complaining about.
  • Where a student has a complaint about a [central] university staff member, that complaint should be submitted to the university.
  • Where a student has a complaint about a college staff member, that complaint should be submitted to the relevant college.

That feels like quite a mess. Even if we set aside the “what exactly are PGRs, staff or students” question, we can assume that students are going to be (more) wary about complaining about something in their own college to their own college than to a wider university function.

And when a student is complaining about another student, this line in the “student disciplinary framework” looks ominous (my bolding):

Where a minor sanction or measure is not considered to be appropriate, the Discipline Committee can choose from the following further sanctions and measures: a) Restrictions or conditions on the right to use University or, with the permission of the relevant College, College premises, facilities or services;

That’s right – in both complaints about staff and students of colleges, the college is in control – and if students use the central university’s processes, colleges can ignore the central university (which holds the OfS registration, not the constituent colleges).

This feels like a huge mess right across the sector to me – and given harassment thrives in corners and pockets, needs sorting out sharpish.

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