Why UoB must tackle student parties - and how it can do so

July 6, 2018

You may think it’s obvious that the University of Bristol, rather than the police or council, should respond to noise disturbances by students. The university argues otherwise. Its Good Neighbour policy says: "Students are subject to the same controls and laws as any other citizens and the University cannot usurp the responsibilities of the Police or other agencies."

 

Residents who follow that advice quickly discover there are legal and practical constraints on what the police and council can do. Since both now labour under severe budget cuts, they might be quite happy if the university were to “usurp” their role in student matters.

 

I say that under the “polluter pays” principle, the costs of dealing with student behaviour rightly fall on the university.

 

I also say the university could use its existing powers more effectively to try to halt student parties when they're happening.

 

I first mentioned these proposals at a meeting of the Chandos Neighbourhood Association in March. I'm now sending them to Lynn Robinson, the university's deputy registrar, who attended a residents' meeting organised by CNA this week (July 3, 2018). Read my full article and proposals below.

Why the University of Bristol should act against student noise—and how it can do so

 

You may think it’s obvious that the university, rather than the police or council, should respond to noise disturbances by students. The university argues otherwise. Its Good Neighbour policy says students are “made fully aware of the standard of behaviour required by the University” in matters such as noise, but then adds:

 

Students are subject to the same controls and laws as any other citizens and the University cannot usurp the responsibilities of the Police or other agencies.

 

Its website provides links to the police and council noise officers:

 

It is important to remember that the University does not have legal enforcement powers in many situations and therefore you may wish to contact the organisation that does have more appropriate powers …

 

Residents who follow that advice quickly discover there are legal and practical constraints on what the police and council can do. Since both now labour under severe budget cuts, they might be quite happy if the university were to “usurp” their role in student matters.

 

I say student noise is rightly the responsibility of the university, for the following reasons.

 

 

The Big Picture

To state the obvious, the students are here because the university is here. They live in rented housing because the university chose not to build accommodation for second- and third-years. And they cluster in areas within walking distance of their lecture halls, creating hotspots where the different lifestyles of students and the wider community collide.

 

These imbalances and contrasts create inevitable tensions, which have grown as the university has grown. Student numbers at UoB have increased by 42% over the past decade (2007/08 to 2017/18; see end notes). While the effects on residents are more difficult to quantify, many say noise disturbances, waste-recycling issues and other such problems are getting worse.

 

While it’s true the university brings economic benefits to the city, a decade of government austerity has pared police and council services to the bone even as the student issues requiring their attention have grown. Unless something changes, there is a risk of worsening relations between the university community and the rest of the population. So if the university wishes to be a Good Neighbour, it needs to take ownership of the problems and fix them.

 

 

Who Should Pay

Directing complaints to the police and council is all very well, but these are public services funded by taxpayers, in this case payers of council tax. That means residents—students are exempt. Boiled down, therefore, the proposition is that the remedies should be paid for by the victims. Does that sound right? A more appropriate principle is “polluter pays”. The costs of dealing with student behaviour should fall on the university. Maybe it should bill students for doing so.

 

Let’s also consider where the “police or council” channel takes us. If these enforcers overcome their legal and practical hurdles and mount effective action, the result may be an appearance before magistrates for the students concerned. Is that what the university wants? Most residents probably do not. Many have, or have had, sons or daughters at university. They want disturbances to be stopped and misbehaviour punished, not to prejudice someone’s future prospects with a criminal conviction.

 

The university should also consider the health and safety concerns raised by recent very large student parties. Having more than 100 people crammed into a house creates risks of accidents or fire, not to mention property damage that can land students with a large bill.

 

It’s better that the university deals with these problems in-house, if only to protect its students from themselves.

 

 

Who Has Capacity

More fundamentally, the university should act because it has relevant powers and is well placed to do so.

 

Although it doesn’t have “legal enforcement powers” – for example, to enter private property or confiscate sound equipment—it has something that is in many ways far stronger. Its Student Disciplinary Regulations, to which all students are bound by contract, give the university sweeping powers over misconduct judged to put the institution’s reputation at risk. This includes any misconduct, whether on campus or off campus. It extends explicitly to misconduct in private accommodation. (This is the basis on which the university deals with residents’ complaints about noise from student neighbours.) Also, as the regulations make clear, authorised university officials have powers to issue “a reasonable instruction relating to discipline” (presumably, to do, or not do, certain things), breach of which is an offence in itself.

 

These powers are far less constrained, and easier to deploy, than anything available to the police or council. (The police, remember, don’t have noise powers.) They are backed by a disciplinary procedure that includes fines and other penalties, and which can escalate through various levels of severity. In theory, the very worst cases can go to a Disciplinary Committee which can order exclusion, suspension or expulsion.

 

This disciplinary system is reactive in concept: Misconduct happens, a complaint is lodged after the event, and disciplinary procedures ensue. This fails to meet residents’ needs because it does nothing to halt a noisy party when it’s happening. Complaining next day doesn’t compensate for lost sleep. But with a few extra steps and modest expense, the system could be made more potent and used as a tool for intervention. No new powers would be required.

 

 

An Improved Response

This is my suggestion for how the university could use its existing powers more effectively:

 

  • The university provides a phone hotline for night-time party complaints
     

  • When a call is taken, the university checks (as it does now) whether the address is occupied by UoB students
     

  • University staff visit the address and note (a) the time, (b) whether noise can be heard from the street, and (c) any other observable details such as the presence of doormen (all information currently provided by residents). This will establish whether there is a breach of UoB Local Rules and party guidelines, sufficient to require a disciplinary hearing with the Community Liaison Officer (current procedure)
     

  • The staff go to the property, identify themselves, and ask to speak to the party organisers. They inform the students their event is in breach of Local Rules and party guidelines, which means they face a disciplinary meeting with the CLO and potentially fines for each student tenant. (All of this is currently done or said by residents.)
     

  • (The new bit.) The staff also issue an instruction on behalf of the Vice Chancellor that the event must immediately be brought into compliance with the Local Rules and party guidelines, with a warning that failure to comply will be an additional (second) offence, resulting in an escalation of the disciplinary hearing and, potentially, stiffer fines. The staff say they will return in 20 to 30 minutes to see whether the instruction has been complied with
     

  • When the staff return they reassess the event. If it is now compliant, they inform the students accordingly, remind them they will be called to a disciplinary hearing for the initial offence, and warn them of the consequences if there are further complaints. If the event is not compliant, the staff note the details and warn the students that because they ignored the instruction, they are now liable for higher penalties. The staff also issue a second instruction along the lines of the first. They warn that failure to comply will represent a third offence, and that the students may be liable for fines at the top of the range, with the possibility that their future at the university will be up for consideration
     

  • If non-compliance continues, the staff continue to monitor the event so as to make a factual report to those who will handle the disciplinary hearings; if there is disorder in the street, as there often is in the later stages of big parties, the staff will call the police and alert them to instances of public disorder
     

  • The next day, the disciplinary procedure operates as it currently does. The CLO receives a report and, based on the facts of the case, decides whether it will be dealt with by the CLO or should be escalated to the Pro Vice-Chancellor

  • The outcomes of cases must be widely publicised within the university, such that students realise the university is serious about stamping out these events, and that failure to comply will be extremely costly.
     

The proposals above do not guarantee that student parties will be halted. Student organisers might choose to ignore the warnings and continue. But in doing so they will have self-selected a higher level of punishment, and in the face of open defiance the university will have a clear justification for imposing harsher penalties. Students would hopefully conclude that the risks and costs of being shut down were high, and they should follow advice to hold their events at more suitable venues.

 

Residents would no doubt appreciate that, instead of being forced to go on to the streets themselves in the small hours, the university had provided support at the point where it matters most.

 

 

Andrew Waller, July 2018

 

 

Notes: Student numbers: The university had 25,024 students in 2017/18 according to statistics presented (in Excel format) on its website. The figure in 2007/08 was 17,660 according to an archived PDF document found by Google search.

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