This isn't an Act of faith but paranoia

March 16, 2007

New legislation turns suspicion into law and corrodes trust in academics to nurture and teach the young, says James Panton

A mounting burden of regulation has strained the relationship between academics and students over the past few years. Some instances are laughable - I have yet to meet a colleague who takes seriously the idea that tutorials should be conducted with the door open. But other cases go further in giving substance to today's confused and paranoid climate around relations between adults and young people.

One example is that admission interviews should always be conducted by at least two people. Of course, universities and colleges did not introduce this measure because they suspect that colleagues will make inappropriate advances towards interviewees. Rather, it is a defensive approach to a litigious climate in which unsuccessful candidates might claim unfair treatment. The message, however, is the same: when it comes to young people, we really cannot be too careful.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 is formalising this climate of suspicion and paranoia into law. When the Act comes into force, it will be a criminal offence for any adult to work with or provide voluntary help to under-18s without first having undergone a check by the Criminal Records Bureau.

Research conducted by the Manifesto Club has demonstrated the disastrous consequences that this legislation is having in education below the tertiary level and in the voluntary sector. We have all seen the problems caused by a backlog of teachers awaiting results of a CRB check at the start of term, and some schools have cancelled exchange trips because they are unable to vet host families. Voluntary organisations are struggling to find volunteers because many people are put off by excessive bureaucracy or rightly outraged by the implication that they must be criminally vetted before being legally allowed to engage with young people.

But the implications of the Act have not been properly interrogated, much less challenged, by those of us who work in institutions of higher education. They need to be, for they will be just as corrosive in universities and colleges as they are in schools and voluntary organisations.

There is great confusion about the admission of those few kids who have done so well at school that they are ready for university before their 18th birthday. At my own institution, there is uncertainty about whether under-18s should be offered one-on-one tutorials. And there are doubts about whether such individuals can be housed in university accommodation because of the potential threat posed by their over-18-year-old fellow students.

Such questions are only the beginning. What about university open days, when 16 and 17-year-olds are invited to tour the university and meet with tutors. What about admission interviews? When the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act becomes law, every individual who has contact with potential candidates at open days and interviews will have to be vetted. Obviously this includes all the tutors and administrators who have responsibility for such hopefuls. But it also includes current students who volunteer their time to show candidates around the university - even though the age difference between them and their young charges may be only a matter of months. And what about those few straggling undergraduates who have remained in halls for a bit of extra revision? If interview candidates are to be housed for a night or more, any other dorm resident over the age of 18 will have to be vetted. And what about canteen staff, groundsmen, secretaries, gatekeepers? The list goes on and on.

It is easy to see why those of us in the university sector, already overburdened by red tape and paperwork, might object to yet another mountain of costly and time-consuming bureaucracy. But if this is our only complaint, we will be reneging on a more important responsibility.

Our position as academic tutors depends on a fundamental relationship of trust. We are trusted to pursue our research and to communicate knowledge to young people. We are trusted to have their best interests at heart. Most important, we are trusted by students themselves to be their guides into a world of knowledge and their inspiration with our passion for learning.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act stands directly opposed to that principle of trust. In seeking to codify and formalise the relationships we have with students and young people generally, it is corrosive of the informality and spontaneity on which any intellectual relationship is grounded. In stipulating that no one can be relied on until they have first been cleared by the CRB - to all intents and purposes that they have been granted a special licence to relate to young people - it is corrosive of the trust placed in us to welcome young people into the adult world.

It is high time we took a stand against the Act, and against the culture of uncertainty and paranoia that has given birth to it.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at St John's College, Oxford, and co-founder of the Manifesto Club ( www.manifestoclub.com ).

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