Student experience: the potential in restorative justice for universities

Student experience: the potential in restorative justice for universities


Universities increasingly recognise that a high quality student experience is an important consideration in University selection.

Universities that proactively foster an environment of connection and belonging are more likely to have a positive reputation among current and prospective students. However, safety and wellbeing – key elements of the student experience – are domains where traditional approaches may not always be optimal.

Nous has worked with several Australian universities to improve their students’ experience. In recent years, we have seen progress in the implementation and management of student safety and wellbeing approaches, ranging from preventive measures to student discipline. For example, disciplinary procedures have long been codified to act on the principles of procedural justice for students. More recently, Safer Community programs in some universities allow students and staff to raise concerns about potential safety risks before they escalate.

Despite advances like these, student safety and wellbeing remain areas for further exploration. One reason for this is that the boundary for University involvement is not clearly defined; where an offence does not constitute as either criminal or academic, who is responsible for intervention? What channels do the potential victim and perpetrator have for justice or support? How should duty of care be interpreted in the University context, and how far does it extend into students’ extracurricular activities?

Although this ambiguity is not new, the advent of social media and online forums, and increasing community expectations of universities, call for new and more sophisticated approaches to the protection and promotion of student wellbeing. Furthermore, as the University student population continues to diversify, some students – international, CALD, people with disability and students from low socio-economic backgrounds – may be more vulnerable and have different perceptions of what constitutes acceptable behaviour in the university environment. This is further exacerbated where students live on campus and are removed from their traditional support networks.

There is significant risk in inadequate attention towards the safety and wellbeing of students

As public scrutiny of universities increase there may be repercussions for those universities who fail to provide a safe and high quality experience for their students. Risks for universities include:

  • Student wellbeing and mental health: Unfortunately, despite university efforts to promote a high quality student experience, incidents will arise in any large population of students. The timeliness and effectiveness of a University’s response to adverse incidents will have a significant effect on the student experience and students’ ability to cope in the aftermath.
  • Reputational: Students and the wider community have increasingly high expectations on universities to prevent and address a broad range of problem behaviours – for example, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. The way a university responds to unacceptable behaviour is critical; these instances represent ‘moments of truth’ in which universities must navigate very delicate situations which often address somewhat grey areas. Actual or perceived mishandling of such cases can put a university’s reputation into question, and can also have a profound effect on students, staff and the broader university network.
  • Financial: Linked to reputational damage, universities that are perceived not to take student safety and wellbeing seriously may become less attractive to prospective students (or donors) – particularly if the incident in question has been the source of media attention.
  • Community and social norms: Students at universities are at a critical – and impressionable – point in their lives, and the university experience can shape who they become as they step into the workforce and their further lives. As a microcosm of the broader community, the university experience can shape behaviour across generations.

New approaches can promote a safe and high quality student experience that caters to diverse student needs

Typically, student discipline processes are only partly restorative and mostly punitive. They cater for misconduct that clearly fits within the category of criminal or academic misbehaviour. This creates a gap for incidents which do not warrant a punitive response, but that could be appropriately addressed in a more collaborative process.

One answer is restorative justice, the international movement for a fairer justice option for everyone affected by conflict and misbehaviour. Restorative justice has strong potential to improve the university experience for students involved in, or affected by, antisocial and inappropriate behaviour. It aims to reintegrate people into the community that they have disturbed and address the injustice and hurt caused to affected people. Restorative justice is used amongst other disciplinary approaches in several US universities. The University of Kentucky revised its Code of Student Conduct in 2016 to include alternative conflict resolution processes such as restorative justice; and Stanford University allows for the resolution of some harmful incidents using a restorative justice process.

The primary purpose of restorative justice is to restore stakeholders to community inclusion and dignity

This approach is particularly relevant in a university context where responsible students and affected people often share the same learning environment and social circles.

The uptake of restorative justice for young people has been widespread and largely successful. Restorative methods have been incorporated into youth justice processes in South Australia to assist young offenders to engage in prosocial behaviours. In Victorian high schools, restorative justice in response to antisocial behaviour contributes to the reinforcement of social norms and emotional intelligence, because it places responsibility for the justice outcome in the hands of the people directly impacted. This kind of process can be particularly beneficial to international students who are unfamiliar with local social expectations, or who have been impacted by a bias-motivated incident.

Some restorative processes are exclusively victim-centric, such as the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce Restorative Engagement Program. This program trains senior Defence personnel to meet with a complainant to listen to their narrative of victimisation and subsequent treatment by Defence – the alleged abuser is at no stage involved. This design emphasises the collective responsibility of an organisation for incidents which happen within its purview, without punishing any one individual. The victim is also validated without having to directly face the perpetrator.

There are clear parallels between these examples and a university context. Like student discipline matters (particularly non-academic), they are designed to deal with complex, context-dependent, deeply personal issues in a way that supports those involved. They are flexible, solution-focussed and help the parties to move forward. Possible models for universities could include a training component to encourage prosocial behaviours, or equip students to cope when it is likely they will have to continue to interact following an incident. It could also involve a process which allows a university to take representative responsibility in some contexts where an offender cannot be identified.

Appropriate justice options are a fundamental part of the student experience, because they contribute to students feeling safe and supported in their studies. Student safety is particularly important in an environment where increasing numbers of diverse and vulnerable students are engaging in higher education. By considering systemic improvements to students’ justice experiences, universities can deliver a better education to students, improve their reputations for students and donors, and meet the increasing expectations on universities as the custodians of a social environment.

If you or your university are considering improving any aspect of student experience, including alternative justice processes, get in touch to find out how Nous can help.