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UoB revamp strips CLO of powers, drops waste from rulebook (updated)

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

University of Bristol has brought in new complaints-handling procedures that strip its community liaison officer of power to issue fines or other sanctions to students causing noise disturbances.


(See updates in Comment section, 2/10/2023)


Penalties will in future be decided by the Student Resolution Service (SRS), a body set up more than a year ago to process complaints and disciplinary cases within the university.


At the same time, the university has rewritten its list of behaviours that constitute misconduct in the community, and which may be liable to disciplinary action. The most notable difference between the old and new lists is that failing to comply with council rules on household waste disposal is no longer explicitly recognised as misconduct.


Residents’ groups are worried the changes will weaken the university’s response to undesirable student behaviour that impacts communities—whether that’s night-time noise or over-stuffed bins lining the streets. UoB claims that in practice there will be little or no difference.


The university says the changes to complaints procedures are intended to align UoB with best-practice guidelines issued by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which handles student complaints against universities. One of the OIA’s key principles is that, to avoid bias, the people who investigate complaints should not also be the ones determining guilt or penalties.


Appeals

Over the past year, an unknown number of UoB students successfully overturned penalties from the CLO by challenging the process in appeals to the SRS. (I have asked how many cases there were, but to date have received no answer.)


Responding to Chandos Neighbourhood Association, which wrote to express concern about the possible impact of the new procedures, UoB Vice-Chancellor Evelyn Welch said in August: “Any successful appeal undermines the work of the CLO and sends entirely the

wrong message to students. It is vitally important that our processes can stand up to

scrutiny, and to appeals.”


Residents’ groups have not opposed the procedural changes in principle. Their concern is that the new system may be more bureaucratic and therefore slower, in contrast to the rapid resolution of complaints that helped bring noise disturbances under control last year.


Welch said in her reply to Chandos: “I can assure you the Student Resolution Service (SRS) is a highly professional and growing team who deal with a variety of disciplinary matters. They will work hand in glove with the CLO, with a clear understanding of the University’s priority in addressing any antisocial behaviour in the community.”


Waste Issues

Whether this understanding will also extend to the rule change on waste remains to be seen. That topic wasn’t discussed in the Welch correspondence because the new rules hadn’t been published when Chandos wrote to the vice-chancellor.


Community conduct is dealt with in a set of so-called Local Rules, which are in effect a subset of the university’s main disciplinary regulations.


Until recently, the Local Rules governing behaviour in the community—another set applied to behaviour in halls—appeared in a standalone document. Among key descriptions of misconduct that could attract disciplinary sanctions were “excessive noise that causes a disturbance to other residents at any time of day or night” and “non-compliance with local council waste and recycling collection procedures”.


While noise typically accounts for about three-quarters of all complaints the university receives, most of the rest is usually about waste. Residents complain that, despite receiving lots of information on recycling, some students persistently fail to sort their rubbish correctly, with the result it ends up uncollected or, worse, strewn across pavements and streets.


In a major revision of disciplinary rules, partly to reflect the new SRS procedures, the Local Rules have now been absorbed into an annex in the university’s main Student Disciplinary Regulations document (https://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/secretary/documents/student-rules-and-regs/Student-Disciplinary-Regulations.pdf).


Rules relating to student conduct in the community have been boiled down to three bullet points (a fourth one relates to halls):

  • Excessive noise or gatherings that cause a disturbance to members of the local community;

  • Violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, intimidating or offensive behaviour or language addressed to members of the community whether expressed orally or in writing, including online behaviour in electronic form;

  • Bullying, harassment or unacceptable behaviour affecting any member of the local community;

Non-compliance with local waste procedures is no longer mentioned.


The university’s community liaison officer has said he intends to continue to tackle waste offences as he has in the past, and that failing to recycle properly is “anti-social behaviour”. However, since neither waste nor ASB are mentioned in the new rules, it remains to be seen what will happen. The only part of the revised wording that might possibly accommodate action against waste is the phrase “unacceptable behaviour” in the final bullet.


COMMENT:

Under the new complaints procedures, the response to a first complaint will remain the same: The CLO will investigate and provide advice to the students involved. This will cover expected behaviour and a warning that further complaints could result in formal disciplinary action. On all second and subsequent complaints about the same household, the CLO will submit a report to the SRS, which will determine guilt and penalties.


Last year, many students received a £250 fine from the CLO; it’s not known what schedule of penalties the SRS will apply.


(Updated, 2/10/2023.) Indeed, the SRS has been slow to provide insights into how it operates—information about the outcomes of cases handled by the SRS was notably missing from the annual complaints report the CLO presented to the July meeting of the Bristol Student Community Partnership.


As a Residents Associations representative at the meeting, I had submitted questions in advance seeking information about cases SRS had dealt with. I also pressed the university to ensure an SRS representative was present to answer questions. In the event, no one from SRS appeared.


UoB has since circulated agenda papers for the 9 October BSCP meeting that answer some of the questions I submitted. These mostly related to cases that were overturned on appeal. See UoB complaints data drop, but levels still higher than in past (updated) for details.)


Worrying

Any information vacuum is worrying because, from this year, SRS will take over decision-making for most of the CLO’s caseload.


According to his report, the CLO dealt with 2,450 cases last year: 920 by way of advice, 1,174 by final warning, 333 by way of fines or other sanctions, and 23 referred to SRS. (The numbers represent individual students; however, as some may figure in more than one category, the total number of unique individuals will be less than 2,450.) Had the new procedures been in operation last year, only the 920 first-stage complaints would have been dealt with wholly by the CLO; all the rest, more than 1,500, would have been investigated by the CLO but forwarded to the SRS for a decision.


Unless the university institutes new reporting requirements that include outcomes of SRS decision-making, future annual reports will be virtually meaningless and an important piece of feedback to the local community will be lost.


Unfortunately, this highlights one of the aspects of the SRS that leaves residents’ groups particularly uneasy. Unlike successive community liaison officers, who over the years have fostered close links with residents, attending their meetings and having many informal contacts, the SRS has no such links. Most of its work is focused on internal university matters with little or no public dimension and, on the face of it, no requirement for accountability beyond the university’s walls.


As to whether careless waste disposal is now an offence or not, the new position is simply confusing: If the university intends to continue tackling waste offences—as the CLO claims—why did it remove them from the new rules?


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