In this casework note we set out some points of interest arising from recent casework, which can be applied to most kinds of student disciplinary issue. We have also published some case summaries to illustrate some of the complaints we see from students who have been through disciplinary proceedings.

It is important that providers have mechanisms in place to address behaviour that is not acceptable within their community. All students benefit when a provider acts to ensure that misconduct is addressed. Good practice guidance for providers in designing disciplinary procedures and in handling individual cases is available in the Good Practice Framework: Disciplinary procedures.

In our casework, we see complaints that relate to interpersonal behaviour between individuals or groups, including harassment and sexual misconduct both online and in person. We also see complaints about behaviour that has an impact on other people in a particular area, for example behaviour that compromises health and safety of others in a residential block, or damage to facilities. We have reviewed complaints about behaviour that might constitute a criminal offence, including theft, assault and fraud.

Complaints about the outcome of a non-academic disciplinary process only make up a small proportion of our casework (around 3% in recent years), but their impact on the student or students involved can be high and cases can sometimes be challenging for providers to handle effectively. Students who bring a complaint to us at the end of a disciplinary process have often received a decision that will have serious consequences for their career, financial circumstances, or living arrangements. For a student who may have breached a code of conduct or other similar provider rules or regulations, it is essential that any disciplinary process operates in an accessible, fair and proportionate way. In this casework note we focus on this perspective, but it is also very important that where applicable providers carefully consider and take steps to minimise the possible impact on students who may have been affected by misconduct.

Setting expectations

It is important to be open and transparent about how students are expected to conduct themselves. In our experience, providers do generally set out standards of behaviour expected of students and explain what may happen when those standards are not met. Policies and procedures form part of a provider’s terms and conditions, and should be publicly available so that prospective, current and past students can access them.

It can be helpful to remind students about what is expected throughout the academic year. Some students may miss the induction period, or have more pressing issues to address at the start of the year and so do not full absorb information about the behaviour that is expected.

It is important to be clear about when a provider might act to address a student’s behaviour, including talking about where and when misconduct might occur. We have seen several cases where students have not understood that the provider’s expectations about their behaviour extend beyond the time that they are in attendance in a teaching and learning space. We have also seen cases where a provider has taken action about something that happened before the student enrolled but which came to light after the student enrolled. Providers may wish to consider what their expectations are of future students who hold an offer to study but have not yet completed an enrolment process, especially where the provider facilitates pre-enrolment contact between individuals on the same course or within an accommodation block.

We have seen good examples of providers setting out the types of behaviour that would be likely to be a breach of a behaviour policy or code of conduct. Providers will not be able to cover all scenarios, but providing examples helps students understand what is not acceptable. Explaining sanctions and how they may be applied relative to the seriousness of the behaviour can also help students understand that not all misconduct will be treated the same.

Supporting students

Disciplinary investigations can be stressful, and it is important to take steps to support the wellbeing of those accused of misconduct, as well as those who say they have been impacted by misconduct. It is good practice to direct students to information, guidance and support when going through disciplinary proceedings, so that they understand what their options are and what happens next. Being able to appoint a representative may also be an option where a student has difficulty engaging with the process. Although students should not need a legal representative to navigate a provider’s disciplinary process, it may be reasonable for a student accused of serious misconduct to use legal representation.

Providers may also need to consider any adverse impact the process may have on a student’s accommodation, ongoing studies or visa, especially where the investigation process is affected by the time frames of external bodies.

Investigation and outcomes

It is important to explain at the outset how a student may have breached expected standards of behaviour, how the investigation will proceed and the process that will be followed, including how the student can appeal, and what the implications might be for the student. Disciplinary procedures should contain information about when the student can complain to us. In the complaints we see, providers are, for the most part, doing this effectively, but there are still some instances where a student is placed at a disadvantage by a lack of clarity in the process, for example being expected to respond to suspected misconduct at a meeting without having been told that the meeting would be about a disciplinary matter.

Sometimes providers may need to suspend a student while an investigation takes place.  In some cases we have reviewed, providers have not been able to provide a record to show how this decision was made or to explain how the risks to the student and to other members of their community were considered. It’s important that this kind of decision-making is documented. Suspensions must also be reviewed regularly, to take account of any factors which may change this assessment of risk.

Penalties and proportionality

Providers apply a range of penalties when they decide that  misconduct has taken place. These may be intended to educate or support the student, or to apply a sanction, and may include requiring a student to engage in a programme of learning to better understand the impact of their behaviour; assisting students to engage with support services to help them manage their own wellbeing in more constructive ways; imposing fines; or interrupting or terminating their studies.

It is important that providers give reasons to explain why the penalty they have applied is appropriate and why other lesser sanctions are not appropriate. It is also important to think carefully about any mitigation or contextual explanation presented by the student. It may be appropriate to seek specialist advice about how mental health conditions or neurodiversity may affect a student’s initial behaviour and their subsequent interaction with the disciplinary process.

Interaction with other policies and procedures

Sometimes a disciplinary investigation may overlap with a complaint raised by the student, or with fitness to practise procedures. Providers can take a flexible approach to find the most appropriate route for the particular circumstances they are addressing. It is usually appropriate to reduce duplication wherever possible, because engaging with multiple processes can be stressful for students and resource intensive for providers.

We have observed some variety in how providers approach issues which are intertwined with a student’s academic progression, for example, falsification of evidence in support of a request for additional consideration, or taking a copy of a fellow student’s work without their knowledge. It is for individual providers to decide whether they consider these kinds of behaviour to be a matter of academic misconduct or general misconduct. Providers may find it helpful to consider the range of penalties available under each procedure when deciding upon its usual approach.