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October 26, 2007

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'I am a student accommodation manager at a large higher education institution. Under our current policy we do not provide accommodation for students under the age of 18 in order to avoid putting younger students at risk. In the light of the Age Regulations, should we revise this policy?'

- A spokesperson for the University and College Union says: "Like so much else to do with the Age Regulations, there is no straightforward answer to this question. All those under 18 years old are defined in law as children.

There is a huge amount of legislation and regulation relating to the protection of children. However, none of this refers specifically to higher education, presumably because when it was drawn up, it was not envisaged that children would be attending institutions of higher education.

The Care Standards Act 2000 contains advice on these issues for schools and the further education sector, and it would be good practice to take this into account.

"It is a common-sense position to regard a university campus and its accommodation blocks as an adult environment, which may not be a suitable space for children to be living in independently. For those under 16, legislation relating to sexual activity is obviously relevant, and for those under 18, legislation relating to alcohol consumption.

"However, the Age Regulations have encouraged higher education institutions to remove any minimum age entry requirements they might have had.

"Can you admit a student to a course, and then deny them access to accommodation? Because the Age Regulations allow for direct discrimination to be justified, a case could probably be made out that discrimination in the provision of accommodation is justified in the interests of the child, who needs protection from the potential dangers of living in student accommodation.

"Another approach might be to discuss the situation with parents ... and to require them to sign a consent letter if they wish their child to be in university accommodation.

"It is to be hoped that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will soon issue guidance on this, as on many other matters to do with students and the Age Regulations.

"The University and College Union believes that its members, who are dealing with an increased presence of under-18s on campus, need more support and guidance as to where their responsibilities begin and end."

- Gill Evans, project leader of the Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded Dispute Resolution Project ( www.staffs.ac.uk ), says: "There are other factors to consider here. If you accept students under 18, you have a duty to ensure that they have an equal chance of enjoying a full student experience.

"A practical way forward may be to ensure that their parents consent in writing to their accepting a place in university accommodation, and that the students and the parents are given full information about the conditions and rules that apply.

"If you involve private landlords or providers of accommodation, you should already have a carefully drafted contract to ensure that they make proper provision for student safety and welfare. In accepting students under 18, you already incur a number of obligations that the law imposes on you to protect their safety. This is surely one of the least of them."

- Sarah Wayman, research and policy officer (student welfare) at the National Union of Students , says: "There are a few pieces of legislation you should be aware of. The Age Regulations stipulate that discrimination may be justified where the setting of age requirements is to ensure the protection or promote the vocational integration of people in a particular age group, so you probably could justify your existing policy on this basis.

"There is the Children Act 1989, which raises a duty "to safeguard and promote" the child's welfare and to this is added guidance under the Children Act 2004."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, the Equality Challenge Unit and the Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded Dispute Resolution Project. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

 

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