Students involved in allegations of misconduct need support

There are all sorts of aspects of the Office for Students’ ongoing consultation over harassment and sexual misconduct that haven’t really caught the eye of most onlookers.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Inevitably the debate about the way staff-student relationships should be handled, and the remarkable ambition and scope of proposals on education and training for both students and staff have been the subject of much internal discussion already.

But also lurking in the text is a remarkable step forward for student rights when it comes to advocacy and support.

Proposed Condition E6.2 and the associated “minimum content requirements” of the proposed “single document” will require providers to set out how they will deliver “appropriate support” to students when they want to make allegations or complaints, are actual or potential victims, or are actual or alleged perpetrators.

Condition E6.3 will then require a provider to operate in accordance with, and comply with, that single document – so providers will have ensure that “appropriate support” is provided in practice.

It’s up to providers how that is met, of course – but the now familiar formulation of “illustrative non-exhaustive examples of how a provider may demonstrate that it has complied with these requirements” is pretty far reaching:

  • Support is targeted at the needs of students who wish to make allegations or complaints about harassment and/or sexual misconduct, including, but not limited to during any investigatory and decision-making process.
  • Support is targeted at the needs of students who are the actual or potential victims of incidents of harassment and/or sexual misconduct, including, but not limited to during any investigatory and decision-making process.
  • Support is targeted at the needs of students who are the actual or alleged perpetrators of incidents of harassment and/or sexual misconduct, including, but not limited to during any investigatory and decision-making process.
  • Potential or actual victims of sexual misconduct are signposted to sources of specialist personal support, such as counselling or to a Sexual Assault Referral Centre, where appropriate.
  • Support is available to, and appropriate for, students with different needs, including those with needs affected by a student’s protected characteristics.
  • Support is provided at all relevant times as appropriate, for example, before any formal investigation, for the duration of an investigation, and following its outcome. This includes for actual or potential victims, actual or alleged perpetrators, and witnesses.
  • Students that are potential or actual victims, witnesses, and/or alleged or actual perpetrators are signposted to a provider’s relevant academic support, such as processes for extenuating circumstances or support with assessment.
  • Support is provided to ensure the continued academic engagement of any student involved in an investigation, or a disciplinary or similar process. It may be appropriate to make changes to academic and/or assessment arrangements for an alleged perpetrator and/or alleged victim, or witness, during or following such a process.
  • Support is available to potential or actual victims whether or not they decide to make a formal report about an incident.

The covering text makes clear that providers can determine the approach taken to making such support available to students, for example, by delivering its own support services, commissioning support from other organisations, or making appropriate and effective referrals to other service providers. In a lot of contexts, the students’ union springs to mind here.

It’s interesting partly because it feels tougher than the formulation set out in paragraphs 22-26 of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s Good Practice Framework Part B on non-academic misconduct.

That section mentions directing students to available support services (including for students who are providing information about someone else’s conduct) and making reasonable adjustments – but the above “examples” are both more granular and extensive.

One question it raises is support for and funding of those services. Students’ union advice centres, for example, are telling us that they are seeing growing numbers of increasingly complex and upsetting cases – on a funding model that assumes the odd fight or pot smoker in halls.

A guarantee of support for victims, perpetrators and witnesses will require game raising (and budget adjustment) across the board.

There’s also the wider questions of alignment between the OIA Good Practice Framework and these provisions, and the things that OIA talks about that OfS doesn’t – like timeliness issues that in many providers right now are hiding a backlog.

That backlog in some places is post-Covid thing, and in other cases it’s a general increase in harassment and sexual misconduct casework. But in plenty of providers it’s also about another explosion in another form of casework – cases of alleged academic misconduct.

Like housing, this was another one of those easy to spot if we’d thought about it things – we know that academic misconduct cases are disproportionately concentrated amongst international students, and so very rapid increases in volumes of international PGT students was always going to mean more pressure here.

Again, talking to SU advice centres, some of that pressure is manifesting in major increases in complex and emotionally draining casework loads – where desperate students present in a pretty bad way and don’t really feel that failure is an option for all sorts of reasons.

As such, two interesting questions then arise. The first concerns the prevention of academic misconduct, and the second concerns support for students when accused of it.

On the former, OfS condition B2 requires providers to take all reasonable steps to ensure that students get support relating to avoiding academic misconduct – with examples referencing support for essay planning, accurate referencing, and advice about the consequences of academic misconduct.

A document for students to read on Moodle may not be enough – and if in-person sessions were on offer, there’s plenty of examples of those not being re-run for those who started late given visa delays.

Crucially, the support requirement has to be tailored to the particular academic needs of each cohort of students based on prior academic attainment and capability – and the greater the academic needs of the cohort of students, the number and nature of the steps needed to be taken are likely to be more significant.

Of course part of the problem here is that precious few students know that that is supposed to be happening, and so are unlikely to bring it not happening to the attention of the regulator.

But on the assumption that more international students is likely to mean more allegations, the other question then is why OfS is proposing a minimum “support the student” standard over allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct, but not over academic misconduct.

It’s important because with all the will in the world, international students are always going to be less likely to either raise a harassment and sexual misconduct complaint or be involved in a process because the growth area of international PGTs aren’t here for long enough – whereas they’re much more likely to be needing support over academic misconduct because the stakes are higher at the end of the one year they’re here.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that if international PGTs have doubled or tripled in recent years there are some specific implications that plenty of providers simply haven’t factored in.

I hear a lot about the way in which international fee income is used to subsidise provision and services not aimed at them. It would be helpful, I think, to see some models that at least recognise the costs and investments that shouldn’t be banked, but should be attached specifically to international students and their needs.

2 responses to “Students involved in allegations of misconduct need support

  1. IRT the original consultation – I would pull some of this into the pre-existing requirement is the capacity provision within the consultation itself – whatever approach is taken, universities have to be able to prove the capacity of their processes to handle both complexity of the student body and the overall volume of complaints. I would imagine that most SUs can argue that this capacity argument would also stretch to support structures – if SUs are being used within those support structures, then we can legitimately argue that there needs to be capacity there also.

    IRT the follow-up conversations on academic misconduct – yes, it’s something that all SUs are grappling with as, academic misconduct allegations have increased and these are complex cases with advisers dealing with multiple meetings. In general these conversations are being locked down into block grant conversations without reference to where capacity is and how it’s used. An argument often maintained in this is that the block grant is for the Union to allocate among its resources – that’s a fair argument when those block grants are all sunny, but block grants and trading conditions are meaning that expanding staff teams is difficult for most, if not all, right now.

  2. From my perspective more regulation, in principle, is a very welcome step – because it may well, at the very least, inform prioritisation decisions such that there is more investment in this under resourced area of policy and practice at universities.

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