10 January 2008

Fair Play at University

You'll have noticed, if you've been paying attention at all, that I'm more than a little bit intrigued by the phenomenon of bullying, especially -- albeit not exclusively -- within institutes of higher education. I've talked about it here on at least a couple of occasions, drawing special attention to the fine resource that is the Bullied Academics blog, and to the masterstroke that was One Banana Short of a Republic.

I find it a bit embarrassing so that in skimming through my reading over the last year I forgot to mention G.R. Evans and Jaswinder Gill's Universities & Students: A Guide to Rights, Responsibilities & Practical Remedies, which I only got my hands on in December.

The authors set out their stall in the preface, where they say:
'This book is chiefly about the vulnerabilities of the ordinary student. [...] Far more students are now entering higher education and this rapid expansion, coupled with the transformation of the former polytechnics into universities in 1992, has placed great strains upon the system. This is making it necessary to clarify much that has previously been obscure about the position of students. [...]

Universities have been slow off the mark in responding to this culture change. They ramain autonomous. They have not had to answer to anyone for what they do until the relatively recent introduction of 'quality assessment' and the principle that funding can be withheld from the 'old' universities if standards are not maintained. The student who feels that he or she has not really been listened to when asking awkward questions may well be right. It is not healthy to allow organizations to police themselves yet if universities do not learn to do so openly, honestly and quickly, there is a danger that they will be increasingly policed by the state, which will bring with it other dangers.

It is better for disputes to be prevented or resolved informally than for them to go through the courts. It is expensive to do things that way and it is slow and uncertain; a student may lose years in battle with his or her university; the university suffers too, both financially and in its reputation.

The best way forward for the student and the university alike is for everyone to understand the ground rules.'
The book aims to do that, to serve as a handbook to enable students and universities to understand the rules under which things should be handled, and the principles that underpin those rules. As such, I think it's invaluable, the sort of thing every students' union and plenty of university staff could do worse than familiarise themselves with.

The introduction, naturally starts with the key modern question of whether universities are businesses, and responds by pointing out that if they are, then every student holds a curious double role as both 'consumer' and 'stakeholder'.

Individual chapters and sections vary in quality and usefulness, with the section mental health, say, being rather good and the section on whether students might also be staff being decidedly skimpy. I found the chapters on 'Keeping the Rules', 'Complaints', 'Getting Help', 'Remedies', and 'The Student Whistleblower and the University's Response to Criticism' to be the most useful, though all seemed somewhat dated.

For all that, though, they're good on the principles that should underpin how universities handle things.

The section on 'Keeping the Rules', for example, starts by explaining how universities must comply with the Human Rights Act, and asserts that there is no excuse for universities not training in procedural fairness all those who are to take part in any sort of hearings. It explains the two fundamental principles of natural justice and elaborates on how they work in practice, and then in two-and-a-bit priceless pages outlines the basics for how universities ought to handle disciplinary cases, appeals, and complaints, starting with the observation that universities should not identify themselves with members of staff complained against, with the universities instead merely providing the forum within which complaints can be impartially examined.

(They're pages 81 to 83, if you're curious, most of which you can read here.)

At times the book can verge on the pettyfogging -- some of the possible complaints that it raises seem absurd, as though the authors are advising students to seek any sort of ground for complaint -- but in general it's a solid introduction. Some areas could do with bulking up, though in truth students could do a lot worse than to read this, get a hang of the basic principles, and then thoroughly familiarise themselves with the policies that their own institutions supposedly follow.

The book could do with being substantially reworked into a fresh edition, not least because of the creation of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator since its publication. The O.I.A. isn't an ombudsman for universities -- and incidentally, I rather think any responsible and smart university would consider establishing its own ombudsman nswerable only to the governors with the job of policing procedures as they're being conducted -- but is instead a national adjudicator whose job is to establish whether completed procedures were carried out fairly and properly. Though ponderously slow in how it works, and with a few serious kinks in how it works, it's pretty good, and a very real step in the right direction.

More about the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act wouldn't go astray either, especially since students can request all manner of things from the University, notably almost anything about themselves.

It's funny: the authors observe that it is notoriously difficult to make universities keep their own rules, but their attribution of this to incompetence doesn't convince me. Basic fairness really shouldn't be a matter of professional expertise, after all. Still, whatever the reason, the results can be devastating:
'Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives full of promise are being cut short professionally by incompetence in the administration of univresities and colleges. Students coming straight from school, in particular, are too innocent and too young to stand a chance of getting their complaints heard and sensibly addressed without help. The universities and colleges themselves ought to be giving them that help. The evidence before the authors from dealing with dozens of cases, is that they are not doing so, or at least not regularly and routinely doing so.'
That was in 2001. Judging by the escalating workload of the O.I.A., things really aren't getting better. Can this really be just down to incompetence? Mightn't malice be at work too? They make a deadly team, after all...

1 comment:

Neil said...

A silly question, if I may... Is 'stakeholder' not just a catch-all term for anyone with a legitimate interest in what an organisation does, which as such subsumes 'consumer'?