Credit: Ananya Navale

University withdraws statute amendments following backlash

The University of Oxford has withdrawn amendments to Statute XI from Congregation following intense backlash from students and faculty. 

Those amendments were criticised in a widely-circulated brief and statement last week for being ‚Äúilliberal, vague, and impractical‚ÄĚ.

In an email to Congregation members, University registrar Gill Aitken stated: ‚ÄúCouncil has decided to withdraw the legislative proposal on Statute XI: University Discipline‚ÄĚ.

As a result, the Congregation meeting was also cancelled, and all of the other business before it was declared passed.

Had the proposal been defeated in Congregation, it would have been significant. 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.

The brief alleged that proposed amendments to Statute XI, a code of discipline for all Oxford students, could ‚Äú[restrict] staff and students‚Äô right to freedom of speech and expression on issues concerning the University‚ÄĚ.

It specifically highlighted an amendment that would empower staff to ban students for up to 21 days who could be ‚Äúlikely‚ÄĚ to ‚Äúcause damage to property, or inconvenience or harm to other users‚ÄĚ. It alleged that this ‚Äú[lacks] democratic and academic freedoms protections‚ÄĚ.

Another amendment widened non-disciplinary procedures to anything that would ‚Äúcause the University to suffer a material or non-material financial loss‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúsignificantly damage the University‚Äôs reputation among reasonable people.‚ÄĚ

The brief asserted that the amount of violations to the disciplinary code would subsequently be ‚Äúenormous and vague‚ÄĚ and would result in a lack of protection for freedom of expression and academic freedom.

The encampment had previously 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. “

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

The amendments widened a previous description of ‚Äú[defacing, damaging or destroying]‚ÄĚ university property with a more wide-ranging description of attempting to ‚Äúdeface, damage, destroy, or harm any property of the University‚Ķ including without lawful authority by displaying or attaching any writing or advertising material‚ÄĚ.

The briefing stated that the word ‚Äúharm‚ÄĚ being used lowers the threshold for ‚Äúwhat constitutes a violation‚ÄĚ, and also potentially ‚Äú[establishes] well-known outreach practices like drawing with chalk or affixing posters using strong adhesives […] as disciplinary infringements‚ÄĚ.

The University Gazette, meanwhile, stated that the amendments were designed to ‚Äúwiden the Proctors‚Äô jurisdiction to investigate more cases of serious misconduct‚ÄĚ. It also stated that they helped the University address sexual misconduct and harassment by moving ‚Äúas much detail as possible into a single procedure‚ÄĚ.

Following backlash from students, the University outlined a new response in an email to department heads and heads of colleges. In that email, it said that a ‚Äúvote 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.‚ÄĚ

The University also stated that the statute amendments did not create new powers, and that it took its legal duties ‚Äúvery seriously‚ÄĚ.

Prior to the University‚Äôs new response, Trinity College JCR overwhelmingly passed a motion stating that it was ‚Äúdeeply concerned‚ÄĚ by the amendments, and that they ‚Äúthreaten imposition on the Rights of Students, including rights to Privacy, Protest, and Freedom of Speech‚ÄĚ. The motion also called on Congregation members to ‚Äúnot support the proposed amendments‚ÄĚ.

It also expressed concern over a ‚Äúlack of student representation in the passing of changes that could deeply impact the student body‚ÄĚ.

Oriel College JCR also backed a motion denouncing the amendments, stating that it was “plausible that the amendments, strictly enforced, could have unacceptable effects.” It also demanded that “Council should withdraw them” and also called on “Congregation to vote them down otherwise”.

The authors of the public statement criticising the amendment stated: ‚ÄĚAs before, we wholeheartedly support the University‚Äôs plan to improve its policies on sexual misconduct and harassment. We look forward to the University Council‚Äôs prompt revision of the amendments to Statute XI, such that provisions restricting freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and academic freedom are addressed, while the sexual misconduct and harassment reforms remain intact.”

“Our Public Statement continues to speak for itself in highlighting the problematic clauses about which we are concerned. ‚Äú

The University commented: ‚ÄúThe proposed amendments to the University‚Äôs Statute XI are a significant change to the way the University investigates serious non-academic student misconduct, particularly sexual offences. It is vital that the entire University community understands the intention behind the proposals and supports the specific changes before they come into force.”

“Council has therefore agreed to withdraw today‚Äôs scheduled Congregation vote with a view to resubmitting it after further consultation, additional to the consultation and committee scrutiny that has already taken place over several years. This pause will make no difference to the University‚Äôs approach to protests and firm commitment to free speech, as they are unaffected by the amendments. We hope this will enable our community to come together in support of important measures to reduce sexual harassment and sexual assault.‚ÄĚ

This article was updated to reflect Oriel College’s passage of a motion condemning the proposed Statute XI amendments.