CUSU Women's Officer Claire Sosienski-Smith participated in ribbon-tying outside Senate House last May, in solidarity with survivors of sexual assaultFelix Peckham

Content note: This article contains mention of sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder

Cambridge’s Review Committee for Student Discipline has recommended a University-wide revised procedure for student disciplinary cases – including that the burden of proof for cases should shift from ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to ‘balance of probabilities’.

A consultation on the proposed revisions opens today and will run until 28th February, before the documentation is published in a Report to Regent House, Cambridge’s primary governing body.

For over a year, CUSU Women’s Campaign (WomCam) has campaigned for a shift to the balance of probabilities, arguing that the University is unqualified to act as a court of law, and that as sexual assault often leaves little tangible evidence, allegations are highly unlikely to be upheld under proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

Explained What are the arguments used for and against the change to 'balance of probabilities'?

Those in favour of the University switching to 'balance of probabilities' argue that the University is unqualified to act as a court of law. They also point out that currently a high proportion of sexual assault cases go unreported, or without conviction. As sexual violence often takes place in isolated places and leaves little tangible evidence, the chance of an allegation being upheld is slim when the standard of proof requires proof 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Critics of proof 'beyond reasonable doubt' for University disciplinary procedure cases argue that victims of sexual misconduct may be less willing to come forward if allegations are rarely upheld. The vast majority of UK universities, including Oxford, use balance of probabilities.

In opposition, those in favour of retaining 'beyond reasonable doubt' argue that it minimises the chance of an allegation against a student being wrongfully upheld. In using 'balance of probabilities' in cases of harassment, the University would be deciding on matters that could still be prosecuted in a court of law. If university proceedings are then used in a criminal investigation, both the defence case and the prosecution case could be jeopardised.

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The special ordinance drafted by the Committee has also called for the creation of a University investigator, a full-time position tasked with undertaking investigations of misconduct and presenting a case to the disciplinary procedure.

“This full-time role enables the University to conduct investigations sensitively and appropriately into student misconduct, including serious sexual misconduct, and other student complaints, presenting this information to senior decision-makers within the University”, the Committee wrote.

At present, misconduct cases are handled by the University Advocate, who is also an academic.

The Committee found that in 2017 to 2018, 14 cases relating to allegations of breaches of student discipline were undertaken by the University Advocate, a sharp increase in workload from past years, of handling generally two to three cases annually. 

CUSU Women’s Officer Claire Sosienski-Smith praised the proposed reforms. She said, “changing to the balance of probabilities shows that the University actually cares about shifting the culture around sexual harassment and assault, and cares about the welfare of students using the disciplinary procedure.

“This care extends to employing a full-time investigator who is trained in how to respond to sensitive disclosure from survivors”, she added.

The revised procedure would also create a Student Discipline Officer: a current member of Regent House who would commission investigations and considers reports submitted by the investigator. The officer would be able to chose whether the case should be dismissed, whether a minor sanction should be imposed, or whether it should be referred to the University’s Discipline Committee.

The Review Committee referenced consultations with students and staff on the standard of proof, stating that“the majority of students and staff were in favour of adopting the balance of probabilities as the standard of proof for the student disciplinary procedure”.

CUSU President Evie Aspinall, a member of the Review Committee, said: “If approved, the revised procedure provides an opportunity to create real change in the institution so that survivors of sexual violence can come forward with their experiences, with the knowledge that they will be heard, believed, and supported to find a meaningful sense of justice”.

“We need to make sure that the University’s rhetoric is backed up at every stage by material change”

In May last year, around 50 campaigners tied purple ribbons to the gates of Senate House prior to a discussion on reforming the disciplinary procedure, to note that 800 University members had signed an open letter calling for a shift in the burden of proof.

Regulations surrounding student discipline procedures have in the past been dispersed across a number of University sources, leaving wording sometimes inconsistent. The new proposed ordinance, drafted by the Review Committee, offers a single, centralised source for students to view the University’s procedure, with consistent language. 

Sarah d’Ambrumenil, the head of the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA), said that “what is hoped is that by the University providing these revisions, that reporting students will think that the University disciplinary procedures are helpful”, and that by the University “being as explicit as possible about what the procedure will actually look like, it means that complainants or reporting persons can make an informed choice about what is going to be better for them.”

d’Ambrumenil noted that a recent change to the reporting form for student misconduct clarified to students that “they don’t have to keep repeating in detail experiences that have happened to them”.

Any decided-upon revisions to the University’s current procedure will not immediately affect how individual Cambridge colleges approach student disciplinary cases. Each college has their own disciplinary procedure for student misconduct, some of which already rely on a burden of proof of the balance of probabilities.


Mountain View

Analysis: Breaking the Silence must be substantiated

In recent months, lapses in college procedures for reporting misconduct have come under the spotlight. In September, two students spoke out over how their complaints against University staff members were not taken seriously, and that they led to little consequence. In November, a Varsity investigation uncovered how one college failed to both discipline a student accused of rape, and to support the student who brought forward a complaint against him.

Another student spoke out last term about how her college’s disciplinary procedures exacerbated her PTSD, in changing her ex-partner’s ban from the College on several occasions and in certain college staff voicing their opinions on the case to other students.

Sosienski-Smith added: “we need to make sure that the University’s rhetoric is backed up at every stage by material change, such as a willingness to fund the services for survivors that are often outsourced to already underfunded services which serve the entire Cambridge community.”

Updated, 1st February: This article was updated to correct the inaccuracy that 14 cases regarding sexual misconduct were undertaken in 2017. The correct figure is that 14 cases were undertaken regarding allegations of breaches of student discipline. 

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources: