• Peter Jones


Most university vice-chancellors, one suspects, if they subscribe to any paper read the Guardian by choice. But when that paper runs a story about their university, they are likely to suppress a groan: the news is unlikely to be good. Events three weeks ago at Birmingham University are a case in point.

Three years ago, a female student living off campus (we will anonymise her as Alice) took a boyfriend (call him Ben), also a Birmingham student, home to her digs after some heavy drinking. They had consensual sex and slept together. In the middle of the night he then allegedly had sex with her again while she was only semi-conscious. Both, it seems, then went back to sleep, before Alice had Ben bundled out of the house in the morning.

In April this year, worried about encountering Ben during her finals, Alice submitted a formal complaint, alleging rape by Ben two years earlier and asking the University to investigate and if necessary discipline or exclude him.

The University declined, citing the passage of time (well over two years) and the fact that the event had occurred on private premises outside the campus where it had neither jurisdiction nor the facilities to investigate. It did offer to have a word with Ben, but could not guarantee to keep Alice’s name secret if Ben asked what he was accused of.

This misfortune could have been avoided had Alice not chosen to bring home a man she did not know very well after a drunken party.

The result was a Twitter blitz and vortex of vitriol against the University, which stood accused of misogyny, breach of its duty of care, and condonation of sexual violence. This was predictable in a sense: Alice obviously deserves sympathy.

But here’s the problem. Viewed in the cold light of day, the only sensible conclusion is that the university here acted entirely correctly.

First, note that what was demanded was an investigation by a body not equipped to carry it out, concerning events over two years earlier, where it was one teenager’s word against another’s, both having been drunk at the time.

Birmingham, like all universities, is a charity primarily devoted to higher education, research and scholarship; every pound used to paying staff to conduct probes of this sort, and every hour spent on them, is money and time taken away from these aims. One might have thought that this was quintessentially a job for the police, whose function is deal with allegations of this sort.

Secondly, what about the interests of Ben, presumably also about to take his finals? Whatever Alice’s concerns, a demand to tax him then with unproved (and possibly anonymous) allegations about events during his first year is hardly fair on him.

Thirdly, the circumstances (which one suspects happen more often in student circles than one cares to admit) are relevant. Ben, presumably still half-drunk, may very possibly have believed that Alice would if fully awake have consented to further sex, and that her sleepy protests were not serious.

Now, this probably is rape according to the sea-green incorruptible criteria of the law. Nevertheless it is at the lower end of the spectrum of seriousness, some might even say at the technical end. It is by no means clear that a university should be expected to expend significant resources dealing with the fall-out from it.

Fourthly, it is relevant that this whole misfortune could have been avoided had Alice not chosen to bring home a man she did not know very well after a drunken party. It may be objected that this is victim-blaming: but it is not. No-one suggests that Ben’s culpability is any the less because Alice could have avoided being assaulted by him: rightly, no rapist can ever excuse himself by arguing that his victim was foolish.

University administrators see themselves not as servants of scholastic societies, but as sellers of skill-sets, lifestyle facilitators and corporate administrators.

But here demands were being made on the limited resources of a third party (i.e. the University); and in deciding how to spread such resources it must be legitimate to distinguish between those who could and could not reasonably have avoided their misfortune, with preference being given to the former.

There is, however, a bigger point here. A recurring theme in this affair is that Birmingham University broke its duty of care to Alice. On this account it had been obliged, and had failed, to look after her interests and welfare generally; to protect her from misconduct by other students wherever they were; and to that end to extend its regulatory and disciplinary tentacles to cover students’ conduct on and off campus.

But, apart from the fact that (as Birmingham’s critics repeat endlessly) the great and the good, including Universities UK, seem to think such extensive and intrusive regulation is a good idea, what rational grounds are there for imposing any such duty on it in the first place?

After all, we don’t treat other adult organisations that way. We demand that golf clubs keep their clubhouses and courses safe, but we don’t accuse them of breaking their duties of care if members indecently assault each other on their way home from the club dinner, or some member makes hurtful comments about the club caddy on a Saturday morning in town.

We do not ask churches to monitor extra-church behaviour and, for example, apply disciplinary measures or offer counselling if it turns out that one regular worshipper has been harasses a co-worshipper at home. Such behaviour is reprehensible: but it is not the responsibility of the club or the church.

Why so different with universities? The reason, one suspects, lies in people’s changing vision of a university. Once it was seen as a community of scholars whose students willingly choose, with their parents’ help, to become part of it in order to improve themselves.

Today, university administrators see themselves not as servants of scholastic societies, but as sellers of skill-sets, lifestyle facilitators and corporate administrators.

Parents for their part see universities not as nurseries for scholarship, but as the organisations they pay to take their children off their hands for three years after school, look after them and prepare them for white-collar jobs.

Faced with such beliefs, it is unsurprising that students should now be regarded not as autonomous beings expected to find themselves through self-education, but as vulnerable inmates needing protection and regulation at all times.

Or, to put it another way, university is today seen as simply a continuation of school. And just as in schools pupils are coddled, ordered about and at all costs – even educational costs – protected from anything seen as physical or mental harm, so they are similarly infantilised at university.

There is increasingly a worrying similarity between what happens in the sixth form at a neighbourhood comprehensive school, and events in the seventh at the local university.

(Peter Jones is the pseudonym of a senior UK law professor)

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