At the end of last year five students were suspended from Sussex University for their part in various student protests campaigning against the privatisation of universities. Sussex University is not the only university involved in these protests, more recently a further six students have been suspended from the University of Birmingham for similar protests.
Sussex University suspended the five students using their internal university regulations and no doubt University of Birmingham cited similar Regulations to suspend their students. Interestingly however, the internal university Hearing against the five students at Sussex was postponed due to claims the trial was being conducted by a biased chair. One of the Panel members, who had been selected under the rules set out in the Regulations, was in fact somebody who had himself spoken out against the student protests on Radio Sussex.
This situation begs the question whether this potential conflict and bias would have come to light if it had not been for the legally qualified representative of the Sussex students bringing this to the attention of the Panel? Would this point have been ignored had the students tried to argue it themselves? Would the students have even known that this potential bias renders the Hearing ineffective and unfair?
In my experience I have seen numerous students being dealt this card. It does not just stop at potential bias of Panel members. Matters relating to the case are often discussed amongst the Panel members and the university staff members charged with bringing the case against the student on behalf of the university. To get an idea of how prejudicial and wrong this is, it would be like the Judge talking to the CPS about the case, evidence and parties involved before a trial. Evidence of non-related conduct are brought to Panel members’ attention, either through informal discussions between staff and Panel members (let’s not forget they are likely to be friends as well as colleagues, socialising together, crossing paths in corridors and dinner parties), or by way of evidence not even first disclosed to the student, giving the student no opportunity to rebut or address the evidence prior to the Hearing.
The people organising or conducting these hearings are not legally trained and are unaware of the potential bias and the harm this bias can do to a case. On the one had you have universities trying to conduct quasi-legal hearings and on the other, them not adopting proper legal processes. Often by the time the student has arrived in my office they have been through a gruelling process with the university, a process that can be littered with procedural irregularities.