16 January 2008

A Kafkaesque Fantasy

Sometime before Christmas, Student Direct, Manchester's student newspaper, ran an article on an open meeting between Alan Gilbert, the University's President, and an unspecified number of the University's students. I've already mentioned how Student Direct seems to have made it its mission this year to pick up on all the areas where its given the University a free pass since the merger of the University of Manchester and UMIST.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of issues reported on by Student Direct in the weeks prior to the meeting were aired, though I was intrigued by the article reporting that Professor Gilbert's had requested that he be copied into any e-mails of complaint that students sent to the University. Did he really say this? How many complaints are sent to the University every day? Does he plan on reading all these e-mails? Even if he reads them, does he plan to do anything about them, or is this just to satisfy his curiosity? Does he plan to do any work at all before he leaves?

Copying Professor Gilbert into complaints certainly ought to be a good idea, not least because it will enable him to see just how inefficient -- and that's a charitable adjective -- the University can be.

They hide that information in books
For example, say there's a student who's being bullied by a lecturer, and about whom a lecturer is telling lies, doing everything possible to destroy that student's credibility should they complain. I'm not saying that that's the sort of thing that happens, but you know, let's just say.

How would the student complain? Well, if she didn't think to talk to the Students' Union, and many students don't, because they tend to assume all it does is organise parties and 'Stop the War' stuff, she'd probably go to the University's StudentNet page, and from there make her way over to the section on Student-Related Policies, once she finds it. So what sort of policies are there?

Well, there are quite a few: an Appeals and Complaints Procedure for Prospective Students; a Policy on Changes to Postgraduate Research Degrees; a Data Protection Policy; an Equality and Diversity Policy; a Freedom of Information Act Policy; a Guidance Document -- but no policy? -- on Harassment, Discrimination, and Bullying; a Guidance Document on the handling of cases of Academic Malpractice; an I.T. services Policy; Information Systems Security Policies; a Mitigating Circumstances Policy; a Policy on Misconduct in Research and a Guidance Document for dealing with such; a Personal Development Planning Policy, whatever that is; a Prevention of Smoking on Campus Policy, a Policy on Progress and Review of Research Students; a Race Equality Policy; a Religious Observance Policy; a Skills Training Policy for Postgraduate Research Students; a Policy on Split-Site PhD Arrangements; a Policy on Supervision for Postgraduate Degrees; a Policy and Guidelines regarding Student Academic Representation; and a Student Admissions Policy.

What's that, twenty, maybe twenty-two documents? It's sounds like a lot, sure, but believe it or not it doesn't actually cover the problem I've posed. I'm sure these people wouldn't be the least bit surprised, though. They'd probably say it was par for the course where universities are concerned.

In trickery, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, botheration...
The trick in this case, would be to have a trawl through StaffNet, which probably wouldn't even occur to her! Assuming she made her way there, she'd discover buckets of other policies there for the scrutiny of all and sundry. It's a treasure-trove of procedures to which the University pays lip service. Not just in the 'Policies' section either; the 'Documents' section is crucial reading too. So she'd have to dig about, especially since the whole thing is an organisational mess.

You could have fun with Venn Diagrams charting this.

So where would she start? Perhaps she could complain under the Student Complaints Procedure, using the supplied form? I say 'supplied', but if you look you'll find that neither the procedure nor the form is to be found on StudentNet -- she would have to go to StaffNet to seek them out! Assuming she found them there, she'd discover that there's a separate policy for dealing with bullying -- it's not under the remit of the Complaints Procedure. Fair enough. That makes sense.

Of course, I suppose in this case she'd probably be bright enough to have realised that anyway, as there's a Guidance Document on StudentNet regarding the Harassment, Discrimination, and Bullying Policy firmly planted among the Student-related Policies. Of course, there's not a whiff of the policy itself. No, to find that, she'd have to go over to the Policies section on StaffNet, where you'll find the Student Guidance Document and also -- if she looked carefully -- the Staff Guidance Document. Fine, but what about the investigators? How would she find out who the Investigators into this complaint ought to be, and how they should do their job? Well, the Managers' Guidance Document is over in Documents.

They don't make this simple, do they?

... under false pretences of all sorts, there are influences that can never come to good
But it gets worse. Remember the scenario I described: the lecturer was telling lies about the student, trying to destroy the student's reputation. Could the student find out what the lecturer had been saying?

Well, in theory yes. There is an 'Openess' policy, after all, which presumably resembles an Openness Policy and which used to be available among the Student-Related Policies. Not anymore, mind, as the University has presumably decided that students have no interest in transparency and fairness, and decided to hide this little policy away in the Documents section of StaffNet. Ah, the irony.

So yes, the Openness Policy, for so it should surely be called, would give the student the right to know. So too would the Data Protection Policy, sensibly provided -- in a daring break with tradition -- among the Student-Related Policies. The trick would be for her to make what's called a Subject Access Request, saying that she wants to see all communications from the offending lecturer to whoever she thinks he's been lying to. She'd be entitled to this data under the Data Protection Act. Although it's not in the policy, the best way to do this is to go to the Records Office, fill out a form, and pay them a tenner.

That way she'll probably get what she wants within forty calendar days, though it does depend on her being able to find the Records Office! For what it's worth, last time I checked it was near Student Services, just up a little stairway. It has, however, moved more than once in the last couple of years, so it might have been secluded somewhere else since my last visit! Any directions I were to give on this point would come with a caveat.

Right, so assuming our poor bullied student has somehow sucked up the bullying and mistreatment, and the possible victimisation that may have followed on from her subject access request, and hasn't died of old age or exhaustion at this point, she now has the job of trawling through all the nonsense that will have been spouted about her. That's assuming the relevant offending documents were supplied to the Records Office after the request was processed, rather than being deleted, say.

Destroying or tampering with records after a request has been entered is defined as a criminal offence under Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act. It's a personal liability offence, in that the individual tamperer is deemed to be personally responsible for the tampering, rather than the institution. Interesting, eh? It'd certainly be a very bad idea for the offending lecturer to have broken this rule -- or for anyone else to have done so in order to protect them.

Not, of course, that I'm suggesting the University myrmidons would close ranks in a situation like this. Perish the thought!

Somebody must have been telling lies about Josef K
Okay, so she trawls through the stuff, and finds all sorts of defamatory stuff about her. But what does she do with it? Well, the thing is, this isn't exactly covered under the Harassment, Discrimination, and Bullying Policy! It's clearly misconduct, and certainly closer to the kind of misconduct covered in the HDB Policy than in the Students Complaints Procedure, but it's not specified under the policy or in the guidance document. This poses a problem, as the offending lecturer might somehow attempt to destroy the student's credibility by lying about her to the investigators, say. So assuming the student has somehow managed to get proof about this, what could she do about it?

Bear in mind that time is passing. These procedures all take time. The law says forty calendar days for Subject Access Requests and twenty working days for Freedom of Information Act requests -- there is a difference -- and a HDB Investigation supposedly takes twenty working days from receipt of complaint, so even if people do their jobs properly this is going to be messy. And then there can be appeals and such.

But here's the thing: among the policies on StaffNet there's a policy on employees' use of the University's telephone and internet facilities. It makes clear that these facilities must not be used to send any communications that might be defamatory! This is apparently misconduct, and in serious cases will be treated as gross misconduct leading to dismissal! Rightly so, you might think, but it goes further. It seems that employees shouldn't even open e-mails if they think they might be defamatory. And if employees receive e-mails that are defamatory, they certainly shouldn't forward the thing to anyone with the exception of investigators in the relevant computer support unit!

Think about this: the lecturer would have been breaking the rules by defaming the student, and anyone to whom the lecturer had defamed the student who had then forwarded the offending e-mail would himself have broken the rules!

Granted, there's no procedure specified for how a student might complain about this, but I think our lass ought to be safe enough complaining under the HDB Policy. That's assuming that the person she complains to knows and cares enough about the rules and basic fair play that they do their job!

Such a thing might happen when the sky rained potatoes
Of course, the real danger with this is that someone within the University might retaliate, by somehow attempting to discipline the student under the delightfully-named Regulation XVII: Conduct and Discipline of Students. No, that's not on StudentNet either. Don't be silly. Surely you're not expecting transparency this late in the game? No, it's on StaffNet, in the Documents section, under 'C'.

I say 'the real danger'. Of course, that's not it. The real danger is that the poor student would just be ground down by how long this might go on. Forty days here, twenty days there; here an investigation, there a review; here a decision, there an appeal, here a delay, there an excuse; here a vacation, there a lie. Eventually she might finally get the brush-off from the University that is a 'completion of procedures' letter, which would allow her to take the matter to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

Of course, the OIA tries to be neutral, and thus won't even give preliminary advice based on the premise that the girl is describing her situation truthfully. No, it will do things at length and in detail, or not at all, so a complaint will need to be entered, and then after a month or so our heroine will discover whether or not it's being considered, and then there'll be further communications over the course of the next five or six months before the Adjudicator will reach a decision.

And one of things the Adjudicator can't do is demand that a University take disciplinary action against an offending member of staff. No, the best the girl could do if the OIA were to agree that procedures hadn't been followed would be to return to the University and say 'Look, the OIA says the rules were broken. So do it again, and do it properly this time.'

And the cycle would begin afresh.

Of course, this is all just a hypothetical scenario just to demonstrate how Byzantine this whole mess would be. I'm not saying that things like this happen, just that they could. You'd need absurd reserves of determination and steadfastness to fight through this, as well as some very, very good friends.

It shouldn't be so hard. Surely it wouldn't be that hard to streamline the procedures? Especially in a university that wants to be 'world-class'.

And yes, I realise that I could probably say pretty much the same thing about any other university, but it's only natural that I should look at one of the ones in the cities where I live, isn't it?

(For what it's worth, I've not linked to the individual documents here because I imagine they'll move soon enough. Probably to Finance or Catering or somewhere obscure.)

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