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The hardest (higher) education policy question of all?

  • 18 April 2019
Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

I have a niece who is studying ethics as part of one of her GCSEs. Whenever I see her, she asks me to pose difficult ethical issues for us to debate. So we chew the fat over what moral code should be built in to the design of autonomous vehicles, over capital and corporal punishment and over other contested issues, like the optimum rules for access to abortions.

Recording the latest episode of Wonkhe’s podcast brought another challenging issue to the forefront of my mind: the educational entitlement of people guilty of practices that are deeply socially unacceptable and / or against the law.

At one level, it seems obvious that a student who breaks the law should often forfeit their membership of their educational institution. That’s why so many people jeered when, in the words of the BBC, ‘Warwick students suspended over rape threats [were] allowed to return early’ and why so many cheered when, in the later words of the Guardian, ‘Warwick University says rape threat pair won’t return’.

This raises an important dilemma, however. If education is a positive force for good, as most people working in the sector believe, then surely more education – rather than less – is the better way to spread tolerance? After all, we know:

  • graduates commit less crime than comparable non-graduates;
  • prisoner education is a good way to reduce recidivism; and
  • an effective way to combat dangerous driving is to give people education in lieu of a punishment.

In February alone, the Open University, which so often picks up tasks that other universities do not see as part of their core business, held five graduation ceremonies in prisons. This fact was widely (and rightly in my view) celebrated on social media.

Yet, presumably, some of their graduands were guilty of very serious crimes that would have led to expulsion if they were undertaken while a regular student at other universities?

Clearly, the rights of victims should trounce the freedoms of perpetrators. If one student has been stalking another, then of course it is clear who should leave and who should stay. If a student is dealing drugs out of their student accommodation and putting at risk the safety of other students, of course it is clear whose rights should be protected and who should be punished (although, in this context, I also note our polling on tougher punishments for student drug offences proved incredibly controversial among some academics, the National Union of Students and some campaign groups).

But many cases are not so clear cut. When I was a student teacher, a fellow trainee was kicked off the course for an ancient and relatively minor drugs offence that they had not declared when applying. The transgression had occurred such a long time in the past that it seemed a trifle unfair at the time. Even though he had concealed his record and even though he was training to work with children, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime all that well.

(Some purists might go further and say universities are academic institutions so non-academic transgressions should not be punished by removing access to education. Universities are not in loco parentis: they don’t have a naughty step or a reward chart. But this seems like a red herring to me. When students are punished for seriously bad behaviour, universities are merely replicating what happens elsewhere: if someone acts inappropriately towards a work colleague in an office, then they will be disciplined and could easily be sacked – employers are not in loco parentis either.)

So just what is the right punishment for a perpetrator when they are in education, if more education might help unlock a solution to their problems? Should they be banned but only for a specific period of time? Should they be able to transfer to another university immediately to complete their studies? Or are they likely to reoffend elsewhere, potentially putting other students at risk, too? Should they be taught on their own rather than alongside the mass of other students, presumably at huge expense? (That is, after all, sort of what happened to the far-right activist Patrick Harrington when he was a student at Polytechnic of North London in the 1980s, after his fellow students protested at his presence – though he later seems to have studied at both Greenwich and Northumbria with much less controversy.)

Part of the answer must depend on the seriousness and type of offence. There is some useful information out there to help guide people on the frontline through the issues.

  • The old Supporting Professionalism in Admissions unit produced guidance that is still available online for ‘support staff involved with institutional policies and procedures covering applicants with criminal convictions, and for admissions staff considering those applicants.’
  • The charity Unlock provides information on the rights and duties under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and university admissions, as well as on recent changes to UCAS’s criminal conviction question.
  • Universities UK provide guidance on criminal behaviour in higher education.

(I am grateful to Jess Moody of Advance HE for pointing me towards these sources, after we appeared together on the podcast mentioned above.)

Yet this collection of wise advice doesn’t seem to have cut through much to the wider policy debates on higher education. Given the number of people who now enter higher education, there are bound to be lots of tricky future cases and, if we think about all this now, then we will perhaps be prepared to avoiding any kneejerk reactions that risk setting bad precedents.

1 comment

  1. Gillian Cardy says:

    Recently joining the world of HE / teaching in general, I’ve had to confront the issue of a student banned from campus for drug dealing (further details unknown). It seems to me that banning him from education in its entirety is not an appropriate punishment – after all, the criminal justice system will presumably go through due process and deliver a “conventional” punishment that will have its own significant impact on his future employment and other life chances.
    I have delivered my lectures using voice recording and online collaboration so that he can participate in distance learning, albeit in a restricted and less engaging way than face-to-face. Banned from campus and thus the social interactions of learning and community engagement, alongside police actions, seems adequate “educational” punishment for my tastes whilst also sending a message about acceptable behaviour and mutual respect to other students.
    I would be delighted if he could still graduate, put the episode behind him (as far as humanly possible) and continue on to become a valued and valuable member of society.
    Preventing him from continuing to learn, from submitting assignments, from sitting exams, from graduating seem to me to be additional punishments over and above the ones meted out in accordance with “normal” legal approaches to others charged with similar offences but not in education, of whatever sort.

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