UoM SCU – speculative crime unit

In the university’s professionally accredited courses, fitness to practise rule breaches are considered especially heinous. The dedicated deans who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Speculative Crime Unit. These are their stories.

* Dun Dun *

In another student facing policy proposal, the Academic Board has recently circulated a proposed policy in relation to student fitness to practise (FTP) in professionally accredited courses or subjects. Feedback on the consultation process is due by Friday 1st November 2019.

Given the University’s recent commitment to put students at the heart of everything they do, UMSU thinks this another important opportunity to walk that talk. I encourage you let us know how you think this policy will work to make our time here better, and how it works in our interests.

How does this affect you?

Many students are, or in the future may be, enrolled in a course or subject which is “professionally accredited.”

There are many examples of courses of this type at the University: nursing, teaching, law, medicine and other clinical disciplines, engineering, and social work just to name a few!

The proposed policy would allow deans of faculties to set rules which specify the “competencies related to professional practice as well as the safety of students, staff, public and professional providers” (background to proposed policy).

UMSU broadly supports the creation of a policy to address FTP in professionally accredited courses and subjects. We are aware from Advocacy casework that this issue is already addressed by faculties in a largely unregulated and uncoordinated way. Accordingly, we believe that codifying the procedure and centralising the process may increase transparency consistency, and fairness.

So, while we agree with the University’s broad policy objectives, and approve of some of the proposed changes, UMSU has significant concerns about the way in which the policy is currently drafted.

In particular, we have concerns with a number of aspects of the proposed policy that create a regime that is both reactive and punitive.

Furthermore, the proposed policy fails to address a desperate need to resolve a range of issues for students on professional placement, and misses opportunities to improve the current custom and practice of FTP assessment.

Proactive not reactive

Fundamentally, we think the sorts of professional competencies this policy is set up to enforce are part of the curriculum. We want to see the University articulate its commitment to provide us with an education that makes us not just employable, but the best we can be.

We would prefer to see the process expressed in more positive terms, centred on early intervention and proactive support. We note the background to the policy states “the proposed policy mandates that less formal and educative measures are to be offered to students prior to any use of legislative power.” It is unclear what is meant by ‘legislative power’ in this context, however we assume that this evinces an intention that proactive intervention should first be taken to support a student who may need assistance to show capacity to practice under the accreditation guidelines for a particular area of practice. Yet despite this reassurance in the background to the policy, the proposed policy allows the University to skip these proactive intervention steps and go straight to formal processes!

Minority Report Redux

Back when many students were very young at the turn of the century, a movie based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Minority Report” was released (both the novel and the movie are available for loan from the Rowden White Library on Level 2 of Union House!)  Set in Washington D.C. in 2054, it is a thriller featuring a police force which employs psychic technology to arrest and convict murderers before they commit their crime. The ‘Precrime unit’ is headed by Tom Cruise (naturally) who is ultimately himself accused of the future murder of a bloke he hasn’t even met.

Strangely, this story appears to have inspired the policy drafters, with a kind of pre-breach element to the provisions. In the policy definitions, “fitness to practise concern” is defined as “a concern that a student may, or has, breached one or more of the fitness to practise rules” (emphasis added).

The speculative nature of these provisions again suggests that the University continues to approach its relationship with students from a place of mistrust and suspicion.  UMSU has been trying to get the University to address the problematic aspects of their discipline processes and now it wants to take action against students for things they might do … I am definitely getting Orwellian thought crime vibes here… (Nineteen eighty-four is also available at the Rowdy library).

The policy refers to “potential or actual” breaches of the fitness to practise rules. Potential breaches are described as where “the faculty fitness to practise officer has a reasonable belief that that a student will potentially breach…” the FTP rules.

A ‘reasonable belief’ is an objective view – not mere suspicion or speculation – based on reasonable grounds.   Accordingly, if a breach of any FTP rules has not yet happened, what is the evidence used to find “that a student may, or has, breached one or more of the fitness to practise rules”?

This creates the frightening and bizarre situation where a student will have to defend themselves against allegations that can be made simply on the basis that the speculation that a student might breach the proposed policy is reasonable.  This bears no relationship to anything a student actually has done or actually will do.

This alarming development might be more appropriate in some kind of police state – not at a university that puts students at the heart of everything it does …

UMSU suggests that it is necessary for any FTP policy to properly distinguish between inherent requirements of a profession and speculative ideas (let’s call it ‘the vibe’) about a student’s potential fitness where there is no hard evidence of an actual problem. For example, if a student with an essential tremor in their hand wishes to complete studies in dentistry or optometry, they would likely fall short of capacity to meet inherent requirements of that course. Conversely framing this issue in terms of potential breaches of rules opens up a real risk of adverse impacts on students’ legitimate interests without objectively reasonable grounds.

But wait, there’s more!

There are a number of other troubling aspects to the proposed policy and these include:

  • Proposed rules about compulsory medical testing to resolve questions about a student’s fitness; and
  • The financial and knock on impacts on students arising from the application of proposed policy when the student has acted in good faith and has not committed misconduct of any kind – e.g. What happens to a student who misses a placement on this basis, successfully contests it but has to wait another semester/year for another placement?

Why not take an opportunity to improve the status quo?

UMSU believes that this policy represents an opportunity to codify best practice in this area and rectify some problematic and inconsistent approaches by some faculties. We note widely variant practices in schools even in the same faculty, with some processes lacking procedural fairness, and others (such as the conduct points system used in some schools) open to abuse through bullying and discrimination.

The UMSU Advocacy Service sees a number of students each semester who have had their placements cancelled in contested circumstances. In such cases it is disputed as to who is responsible for the placement breakdown. For example, students who have reported bullying or discrimination in the placement, or where the organisational culture of the placement is toxic and dysfunctional. The proposed FTP policy could address this problem by setting out a clear process for evaluation of these situations and determination of whether a student has legitimately failed a placement, or the placement was cancelled through no fault of the student and they should therefore be offered a further placement with no fail recorded.

The Bigger Picture – Placement Purgatory

Students in professional placement exist in a vulnerable nether world.  They are not employees of the organisation where the placement is offered so they are not covered by rights and protections available under employment law. At the same time any rights and protections conferred on students by the University’s policy framework do not apply to the organisation where the placement is offered.

This means that there is an inherent vulnerability for students on placement, and addressing this should be the University’s number one policy priority in this area.  The UMSU Advocacy Service is regularly contacted by students who have had negative experiences on placement and where the University’s policies do not provide any way for these matters to be addressed.

UMSU acknowledges that this is a complex policy issue; however, a university that was putting students at the heart of everything it does would be doing something to translate this rhetorical commitment into policy changes that benefit students.

Call to action

Are you enrolled in a course or subject potentially affected by this proposed policy? Do you have a case example of how the proposed policy may affect your interests?

Let us know: suashelp@union.unimelb.edu.au