Public interest cases

Other disciplinary cases - February 2017

University of Essex

A student at the University of Essex complained to the OIA after his appeal against a finding that he had breached the University’s No Smoking Policy was rejected.

The student was resident in University-managed accommodation and lived in a flat that accommodated 13 first year students. University staff had found ash and cigarette butts in the kitchen of the students’ flat. The flat’s residents had previously been sent warning letters following two similar incidents.

The later incident was investigated by the University in accordance with its disciplinary procedures. During its investigations, the University considered photographs of ash and cigarette butts in the kitchen; a report from the accommodation house keeping services; and minutes of a meeting which took place between six of the flat’s residents (the remaining residents failed to attend that meeting and a subsequent meeting that was arranged to discuss the incident). The University found that no information had been provided by any resident of the flat to suggest who was responsible. Based on the evidence available at the time, the University found all residents jointly culpable.

The student appealed stating that he did not know who the culprit was, and did not smoke himself. The appeal was rejected by the University on the basis that the nature and level of the fine imposed (£25) was reasonable and in accordance with accepted practice and precedent.

The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. We reviewed the Regulations which set out that students were responsible for their own actions, and the actions of invited guests. We determined that the University’s investigation was insufficiently thorough, and the evidence considered during the investigation did not support a conclusion, on balance, that the student, or his invited guests, had breached the University’s No Smoking Policy.

We recommended that the University should quash the decision that the student had breached the University’s No Smoking Policy and should refund the £25 fine. We also recommended that the University reviews its policies and procedures regarding its No Smoking Policy and related disciplinary procedures, with a view to ensuring procedural fairness for students while addressing any safety concerns.

-----

University of Gloucestershire

The OIA identified a number of procedural errors in the University of Gloucestershire’s management of a student disciplinary case.

The University investigated the student’s conduct on a field trip, which she had joined to participate in laboratory work but was restricted from entering the field on health and safety grounds following surgery.

After the field trip the University wrote to the student to tell her that investigative procedures would be instigated in relation to an allegation of misconduct. The University did not notify the student informally before it sent the letter. The letter, and a second letter, did not specify the allegation against her. The student first learned of this when she attended the investigatory interview. We concluded that it would have been good practice to provide the student with copies of the written evidence before the interview and that failure to do this would have put her at a disadvantage.

Following the interview the Investigation Officer continued the investigation by consulting staff. While the student was given a copy of the investigation report there was no indication that she was informed of any new evidence that had been collated. The student was issued with a written warning.

The report went beyond the scope of the misconduct allegation. We considered this to be procedurally unfair.

The University turned down the student’s appeal. It did not provide the student with an explanation for its decision.

The OIA decided the complaint was Partly Justified. The University had already offered to revoke the written warning and we recommended that this offer remain open. We also recommended payment of compensation for distress and inconvenience.

-----

University of Manchester

A student complained to the OIA after the University of Manchester upheld its decision to expel him for his behaviour towards another student.

The student complained that in making its decision the University acted unethically, did not take into account his mental illness, and that the original disciplinary meeting was too short to have looked at the case properly. As part of his appeal he claimed that he had been refused an adjournment to allow him to gather medical evidence.

The OIA looked at the minutes of the disciplinary panel and Appeal Board meetings. These showed that the University had given full consideration to the information the student had provided at each stage. The University had provided the student with details of the charge against him and the evidence it would consider ahead of the hearing. It had given him the opportunity to submit a written statement and asked if he objected to the membership of the disciplinary panel. We were satisfied that the University acted fairly.

There was no evidence that the student had sought an adjournment of the first meeting. We noted that such an adjournment would in any case have been at the discretion of the panel. At appeal stage the University gave the student significant extra time to obtain statements about his mental health.

The Appeal Board noted that the student had not sought help with his mental health until the appeal stage and that no diagnosis had been made. It concluded that his behaviour was part of a longstanding pattern and could not be exonerated. It upheld the decision to expel him.

We were satisfied that the University had run a fair process within its regulations and had set a reasonable and appropriate penalty for a serious offence. We decided the complaint was Not Justified.

-----

Falmouth University

A student at the University of Falmouth complained to the OIA after the University rejected her complaints that she had been bullied by a senior lecturer and that no account had been taken of her disability. She first raised concerns after she received disappointing marks.

The evidence with regard to bullying was contradictory and on balance the University did not uphold the complaint.

The University could demonstrate that it had provided reasonable adjustments. It suggested that it instigate its Fitness to Study process but the student declined this. The OIA considered that this process would have been likely to be helpful to the student as it would have provided an opportunity for her to discuss her needs. However the student chose to withdraw from the University.

We decided the complaint was Not Justified. Based on the evidence obtained during the University’s investigation into the student’s allegations of bullying, we consider that it would not have been reasonable for the University to have upheld this aspect of the complaint.

In relation to her disability the evidence we saw indicated that the majority of the reasonable adjustments outlined in the student’s needs assessments were in place. We concluded that it was open to the student to raise concerns about the adjustments if she felt they were not meeting her needs prior to submitting her assessments.