University disciplinary processes under the microscope

Ian Hynes

Ian Hynes

Chief Executive Officer
Intersol Global
Women studying

This year's Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week has come at a highly relevant time for the higher education sector, with university discipline investigations in the spotlight of late. But behind the headlines, universities are working hard to make improvements in how incidents are handled and resolved.

The student-university relationship is in essence a contractual one. When a student commits an offence the rules which form part of this contractual relationship are breached. Disciplinary processes for instances of misconduct are therefore a civil process, and – as articulated in guidance for universities on this subject published by Universities UK and Pinsent Masons in 2016 – universities should not be seen as criminal investigators.

However, this does not mean that universities cannot learn from the principles that underpin criminal investigations, including those that inform effective case management. Indeed, a key recommendation in the UUK/Pinsent Masons guidance is that universities should ensure that all investigations are carried out by appropriately trained individuals. For example, the investigator should understand the health and welfare issues involved, the potential interaction between the disciplinary process and the criminal process, and the procedure that should be followed. This is something that Intersol has been helping its university partners to achieve.

Intersol are experts in high-quality investigation and investigative interviewing, drawing on decades of experience from the world of law enforcement and working across a range of sectors. Since 2016 we have been working in partnership with Universities UK to develop best practice in conducting investigations to support effective case management, and have recently worked with Keele University and University College London, among others.

We believe that the key to effective case management is ensuring that relevant staff are well trained in investigative skills.

While some cases of sexual misconduct are simple to analyse, others are very complex. They can involve individuals inside and outside the organisation, and investigations often require the collation and examination of countless documents, digital data and other third-party material.

Steps practitioners in universities can take to improve their handling of cases include:

  • plan, prepare, and structure investigations with clear objectives (eg what issues should be explored)
  • ask the right (forensic) questions so as not to contaminate the account (eg tell, explain, describe)
  • consider whether the extent of the investigation is proportionate to the misconduct alleged, including witness and respondent interviews and other evidence (eg social media, digital evidence, CCTV)
  • manage attitudes and cognitive biases
  • listen 'actively'

What is clear is that when undertaking an investigation, institutions have a duty of care to the reporting and the responding student: their primary focus when responding to any case should be the potential impact the investigation could have on both.

In the coming months, Intersol will run workshops in partnership with Universities UK, designed to provide universities with innovative and useful investigation tools and solutions to enable them to be better positioned to:

  • handle investigations consistently and with empathy and sensitivity
  • comply with prevailing policies and statutes
  • make more consistent and reliable decisions
  • manage cases 'Extraordinarily'
  • secure efficiencies and significant cashable savings associated with unsatisfactory investigations
  • manage risk and reputation 

The events will take place on 30 April 2019 in London, and 6 June 2019 in Greater Manchester. For further information and to register to attend, please visit: Managing university misconduct cases that might constitute a criminal offence: conducting inquiries and investigations in higher education.

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