“Illiberal” and “alarming”: University statute amendments criticised

Changes to University statutes on discipline have been criticised for being “illiberal, vague, and impractical” and threatening the right to freedom of speech and protest.

In a brief viewed by The Oxford Student, it is alleged that proposed amendments to Statute XI, a code of discipline for all Oxford students, could “[restrict] staff and students’ right to freedom of speech and expression on issues concerning the University”.

A spokesperson for Oxford Action for Palestine told The Oxford Student that “OA4P is astounded at the Administration’s brazen attempt to rollback the free speech rights of students, staff, and faculty at the University of Oxford. The Statute XI amendments are a direct threat to the Oxford community’s ability to protest and express dissent, which are fundamental to the exercise of academic freedom.”

On 13th May, the University Council voted to recommend Statute XI amendments to the statute to University Congregation.

The University Gazette states that they are designed to “widen the Proctors’ jurisdiction to investigate more cases of serious misconduct”, and help the University address sexual misconduct and harassment by moving “as much detail as possible into a single procedure”.

The changes to Statute XI have been praised in a resolution for those efforts to “explicitly [include] sexual misconduct in the disciplinary code.” However, that same resolution criticises other amendments for potentially threatening several key aspects of protests and demonstrations, and “endangering rights of free expression, assembly, and academic freedom.”

They will be voted on at Congregation, the University’s supreme governing body consisting of more than 5,000 members, on 11th June. If passed by Congregation, the changes will go into effect on 1st October.

Congregation rarely convenes, as the matters before it rarely face opposition, and it normally meets at the Sheldonian Theatre. All members of faculties, the University’s principal officers including the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, college and PPH heads, governing body members, staff working in University departments or institutions and several others can be Congregation members.

If the amendments to Statute XI were blocked by Congregation, this would represent a significant event in University governance. The last time the University was defeated in Congregation was in 2020, when a majority of academics voted in favour of scrapping the graduate application fee.

Speaking as a student in front of Congregation is normally difficult, as it requires a significant, yet undisclosed, amount of support from fellow students to speak.

In this instance, academics have submitted a resolution opposing the amendments to Statute XI that will be considered alongside them at Congregation. 

In a notice outlining the grounds for that resolution, it is argued that there “has been insufficient consultation” around what represents “far-reaching amendments to key rights”.

The notice also states that there are “inadequate protections for academic freedoms and right to protest, rights that are enshrined in the UK’s Human Rights Act and relevant Education Acts”.

The resolution submitted to Congregation against the Statute XI changes states that they are at “risk of endangering rights of free expression, assembly, and academic freedom”. It also calls for a “broader consultative process” and steering group to consider amendments.

Opposition to the amendments was noted by more than 15 academics, with notable signatories including Prof. Kate Tunstall, Dr. Stuart White, and Prof. James McDougall. Supporters of the resolution for a working group were more considerable, with over 30 academics backing it.

The amendments are also alleged to be in conflict with laws including the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.

The brief criticising the amendments takes issue with several amendments proposed as part of changes to Statute XI. The encampment spokesperson also stated that they were “concerned that the vague and impractical wording in several key clauses will provide cover for antidemocratic tendencies within this institution.” 

They added: “The fact that the University has decided to push through these amendments during a time of historic protest and democratic engagement across the Oxford community should concern all of us.”

One amendment allows any person with responsibility for any land or building of the University who, on “reasonable grounds” believes that a person is “likely” to “cause damage to property, or inconvenience or harm to other users”, may as a “precautionary measure ban a student member” from the property for “up to twenty-one days”.

The brief asserts that this amounts to a change where making a complaint was the previous course of action, and under the new rules, it would be possible to “impose a ban of up to 21 days”. It also alleges that this “[lacks] democratic and academic freedoms protections”.

The encampment spokesperson stated that: “This gives rise to a whole host of concerns regarding the potential for racial profiling, which has historically been a problem at this University and its Colleges.”

Another amendment widens non-disciplinary procedures to anything that would “cause the University to suffer a material or non-material financial loss” or “significantly damage the University’s reputation among reasonable people.”

The brief asserts that the amount of violations to the disciplinary code would subsequently be “enormous and vague” and would result in a lack of protection for freedom of expression and academic freedom.

The encampment spokesperson commented: “This clause has a worryingly large scope which could enable the University to take disciplinary action against students and faculty for voicing dissent against University policy and practices. “

An anonymous student affiliated with the pro-Palestinian encampments told The Oxford Student that the proposed amendments were “worded as vaguely as possible so that the University may enforce punishment on whatever action, and whoever protests they wish.”

Another amendment could result in a student being suspended for a non-academic disciplinary infringement, such as a protest, not being able to sit exams or submit coursework.

A major concern for authors of the briefing is that the new statute could limit the ability to put up posters.

The amendment widens a previous description of “[defacing, damaging or destroying]” university property with a more wide-ranging description of attempting to “deface, damage, destroy, or harm any property of the University… including without lawful authority by displaying or attaching any writing or advertising material”.

The briefing states that the word “harm” being used lowers the threshold for “what constitutes a violation”, and also potentially “[establishes] well-known outreach practices like drawing with chalk or affixing posters using strong adhesives […] as disciplinary infringements”.

The student further told The Oxford Student: “Putting up posters or encouraging others to protest should not be controlled, or prohibited by a university that claims to love free speech, and the fact they’re more concerned about taking action on this rather than divesting is shameful.”

“It’s ironic that the University so frequently weaponises ‘freedom of speech’ to protect themselves, yet seems to be entirely opposed to any speech which criticises it as an institution.”

Toby Young of the Free Speech Union said: “From the Free Speech Union’s point of view, the most egregious element in the proposed amendments to the disciplinary code is the reference to causing offence. As has already been pointed out to Congregation by our Chairman, Nigel Biggar, and others, the law prevents the University from prohibiting or sanctioning speech solely on the ground that it is offensive.”

“The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, which is due to be activated in full on August 1st and which English universities will be expected to comply with, will enhance the existing legal protections for academic freedom and free speech on campus, which are already quite robust.”

“If Oxford adopts this new disciplinary code, we look forward to helping any student or academic punished solely for being offensive sue the University for unlawfully interfering in their free speech.”

A University spokesperson stated: “The changes to Statute XI follow years of consultation under a working group involving all stakeholders across the collegiate University. They are intended to update and clarify the University’s responsibilities in investigating cases of sexual harassment and assault, in line with revised guidance to the whole UK higher education sector.”

“That is the prime purpose behind the changes, and removing them would restrict the University’s ability to act in support of victims of alleged sexual offences.”

“The proposed changes predate the forming of the OA4P encampments. While there is some re-ordering of existing clauses of Statute XI, the amendments do not create any fresh powers for the University relating to protest. As with all University statutes, it fully recognises all legal rights of free speech, expression and protest, and the University’s own policy on free speech.”

UPDATE: In an email sent to department heads and heads of colleges, the University responded further to the claims made in the briefing on these amendments. It said that the “Statement and the email misrepresent the purpose and effect of the proposed amendments to Statute XI, and in addition, the email is misleading in implying that the amendments were not consulted on adequately.”

It stated that the brief “asserts that the changes to the Statute create new powers which do not reflect students’ human rights (such as right to protest or the free speech) and implies that the changes to Statute XI may be related to recent protests: neither is true”. It added that it takes all of its legal duties “very seriously”, and that the new amendments had been widely consulted on by a range of student groups.

It added that a “vote against the proposed statute is a vote against the introduction of the sexual misconduct reforms and a vote to retain the current statute which in large part uses similar language and processes to the amendments – but more clunkily. “