Law on Trial: Barring Access

This blog post was contributed by Ruth Saunders, Web and Social Media Administrator at the School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London.

Law on TrialThe School of Law’s Law on Trial 2015 continued into its second day with a panel discussion, organised by Dr Sarah Lamble and chaired by Dr Gail Lewis. The panel explored whether universities were becoming overly concerned with ‘risk management’ and ‘securitisation’ policies – and at what social, political and ethical cost?

Students that apply to study at a university in the UK are asked to disclose a ‘relevant criminal conviction’. The panel of experts, from a wide range of backgrounds, considered the implications of collecting this information on access to, and equality and diversity, in higher education.

Universities and the ‘Carceral’ State

The panel discussion kicked off with a presentation from Birkbeck’s Dr Sarah Lamble, who asked the audience to close their eyes and recall their excitement at applying for university. Imagine then, Lamble said, the university asks: ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’.

A criminal conviction, Lamble reiterated, is often associated with complex and personal problems, which students would have to disclose in the university admissions process.

The result – Lamble argued – is that current disclosure practices are an indirect manifestation of class, gender and race discrimination which already pervade the criminal justice system.

Lamble then critiqued the behaviour of universities’ risk management policies as ‘complicit with the carceral state in demanding the disclosure of criminal convictions’.

Concluding the presentation, Lamble challenged the meaning of ‘risk’. Risk is often associated with opening ourselves up to harm, she said, but assuming risk can also mean embracing possibilities.

Exclusionary Strategies

Next up was Patrick Williams of Manchester Metropolitan University who discussed the contribution of universities’ risk management strategies to increasing discrimination against young black men.

Reflecting on this, Williams commented that:

  • The treatment of young black men reflects the ‘disproportionate and differential treatment [that is] a perennial feature of the criminal justice system in England and Wales’.
  • The temptation to engage in a discourse of ‘spurious’ distinction between ‘offender’ and ‘non-offender’ should be resisted.
  • The construct of risk excludes and marginalises those have already been excluded by the criminal justice system.
  • The resources of risk management should instead be allocated to the needs of the ‘offender’.

Stigmatising Semantics

Birkbeck student and freelance writer Wail Qasim was next to speak at the event.

Qasim took the audience back to the 2010 student protests against the rise in tuition fees and the scrap of Education Maintenance Allowance. Over 100 students were arrested and charged with violent disorder.

The Public Order Act – where the offence of violent disorder can be found – also lists the offence of riot and the offence of array. Qasim argued that the three crimes are very similar; however, the police chose to charge students with violent disorder because of its stigmatising semantics.

Qasim shared his thoughts, placing the arrests as part of a wider collusion between university management and the police against the emergence of student protests and campaigns e.g. Cops Off Campus. Citing as evidence of the collusion, that ‘universities refused to re-admit convicted student protesters, or when acquitted disciplined students’.

Rounding off his remarks, Qasim critiqued the actions as that of a neoliberal university that seeks to bar possible dissenters, and sees ‘delinquency’ as a threat to education – education being a financial asset.

‘Ex-Con’ Researchers

Discussions continued with Sarcha Darke of the University of Westminster, and coordinator of the mentoring scheme at the British Convict Criminology Group.

Darke moved the conversation towards what he described as a growing research prevention culture within British universities that excludes persons with convictions from conducting research:

  • Individual research ethics committees can now be subject to litigation action – increasing the risk management responsibilities of the university.
  • Research groups are required to obtain insurance for their research, the policy of which affects those with convictions from acting as researchers.
  • Universities are afraid of media attention and litigation, and so turn away researchers with convictions.

Self-Selecting Students

Chris Stacey – Unlock and ‘Ban the Box’ campaign – asked why students have to disclose criminal convictions in the first place.

Arguing that most types of criminal convictions do not require disclosure, Chris describes current policies as ‘pointless’ because they rely 100% on self-disclosure.

Looking to broader policies of exclusion, Stacey encouraged universities to share best practices on handling risk management.

One suggestion was to remove the box in the application form that requests information on previous convictions. Evidence shows, Stacey said, that students begin to self-select out when asked to disclose criminal convictions.

The final hour was dedicated to a Q&A with the audience, comprised of legal academics, professionals and students.

A Birkbeck LLM student asked the panel: how should we balance the contrasting points of view and needs of a victim of sexual assault with a repeat sex offender – both of which seek to access the university community?

Patrick Williams responded that universities should engage in more discussions that reduce risk, and Wail Qasim recommended a policy where victims were involved in discussions of the treatment of perpetrators.

‘Ban the Box’

Dr Sarah Lamble concluded the session with a plea to students, staff and the National Union of Students to push for the ‘box’ to be removed. This year, she said, the NUS voted not to put it on the agenda.

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