By Laura Baumanis, 19th October 2022
For many, University is the first real taste of the ‘real world’. Every year, thousands of students enter higher education, many of whom leave the comforts of home-life, and move away from everything, and everyone, they know to really begin adulthood.
A stark difference between compulsory education, and University studies is the fact that the students are treated like, as they should be, adults. This, of course, has its perks; responsibility, respect and autonomy, but, when a student falls foul of University Codes of Conduct, the reaction can, unfortunately, be quite severe. The school days of detentions, de-merits, or the short-term loss of certain privileges, are no longer the case and Universities do take any alleged poor behaviour seriously.
There is, of course, no immediate assumption of guilt. The fact that a complaint was made, unlike in school when a teacher may not have the time to do anything but take the word of the informant, does not mean that the alleged conduct has been proven. Whilst each University has its own, specific guidance, as regards investigating complaints, which normally involves an independent member of faculty conducting a formal investigation by speaking to all involved and coming to a reasoned conclusion based on the evidence heard, this is normally a lengthy process which is undertake with due diligence. For more serious allegations, however, a student may be suspended pending a decision being made.
But what if a finding of fact is made? How seriously is a breach of the code of conduct taken? Can it really impact upon a student’s future, both in their academic studies, and their professional career?
What are the sanctions?
The sanction imposed should be commensurate with the conduct in question. In cases where it has been alleged that a low level breach has taken place, for example harsh words exchanged between students, or poor behaviour in lessons, the University may well determine that disciplinary proceedings are not necessary, and that a financial penalty, mediation or a formal apology would suffice. Whilst the University would retain a record of the breach, and any future misconduct would, inevitably, be treated more seriously, the student could continue with his or her studies.
When an investigator finds that a serious breach is more likely than not to have taken place, he or she will suggest that matter progresses to a disciplinary panel, when a full ‘hearing’ can take place, and live evidence called. If the finding is then upheld, the panel must consider suitable sanctions.
Can I be permanently excluded?
Of course, the most serious of these sanctions is a permanent exclusion from the University, prohibiting the student from maintaining any current or future relationship with the establishment. If that student was enrolled on a specified course such as teaching, or medicine, they may also be referred to a Fitness to Practice panel, which is external to the University, and may well impact upon that person’s ability to enter certain professions. Even if the University chooses to take less severe action, such as a temporary suspension of their placement, exclusion from some or all of the University campuses or resources, or mandatory training aimed at educating them on their conduct, a Fitness to Practice referral may still be made.
The University can consider financial sanctions as an appropriate way of dealing with a case. This could be in the way of compensation for any damage or update caused, or a financial penalty (the maximum amount that can be ordered will be set in the University’s Code of Conduct). In some cases, a requirement to undertake a number of hours of non-academic work (similar to unpaid work ordered by the criminal courts), or a formal warning in respect of any future misdemeanours, may be deemed sufficient a punishment.
In every case the University will conduct their own risk assessments, and will consider the nature of the conduct alleged, alongside any mitigating factors that have been submitted by, or on behalf of, the student. Expulsion should be used as a last resort, and is most likely to take place when the conduct alleged would amount to a serious criminal offence. Even in those cases, it is not inevitable that the University will insist on reporting the matter to the police, and such decisions are normally based on the complainant’s wishes.
Whether an allegation made would amount to a criminal offence, or simply crosses the line as regards what conduct the University deems to be acceptable, a student is allowed to access professional support, and should have a supporter present during all stages of the investigation. These cases can take some time to resolve, and are often extremely distressful for all involved.
How can we help?
At Olliers we offer an exceptional level of support and advice, and do everything we can to help these investigations run smoothly, expeditiously, and to ensure that the best outcome possible is achieved in student misconduct proceedings.