A trashing victim pleads his case
Proctors have fined Oxford students over £10,000 for exam ‘trashings’, more than five times last year’s figure – largely through the use of Facebook evidence.
OUSU President Martin McCluskey has demanded an end to the use of social networking sites such as Facebook in disciplinary matters, and has called for a fairer and more transparent fining process.
Between Trinity Term 2007 and Hilary Term 2008, the Proctors collected over £11,065 in fines, compared to £1670 and £2385 in the last two years. Over £10,000 came from offences linked to trashing, where prosecutions relied upon evidence taken from sifting through Facebook posts and photos.
Such ‘trashings’ are a relatively recent Oxford tradition and involve graduating students spraying each other with champagne, flour, eggs, confetti, shaving foam, ‘silly string’ and other substances. In recent years there have been some reports of students hurling squid and cat-food. In 2004, following complaints by residents, the University resorted to spot-fines of up to £70, but only fourteen students were caught.
This year, using photos posted on Facebook as evidence, fifty-six fines were given out for “engaging in activities likely to cause injury or impair safety and/or disorderly behaviour”, compared to none the previous year. These ranged from £40 to £500, with the great majority of fines £150 or less.
Four students were fined without even committing physical acts. They were fined for “inciting or conspiring to engage in prohibited activities”, with three students fined £40 and one £80 for the crime of “posting messages which could be interpreted by others as encouragement to breach the regulations.”
Outgoing Senior Proctor James Forder revealed the increase in fines at his Oration to University Congregation on 12 March, and was open about the use of Facebook postings to identify culprits and dismissive of subsequent student outrage.
Forder, an Economics tutor at Balliol College, said, “there is one clear sign that we took the right line over misbehaviour after examinations: everyone was furious with us.”
“OUSU expressed a fury. What could be more innocent than celebrating the end of the best undergraduate education in the world than by destroying the environment in which it was enjoyed? What could be more reprehensible than looking at a Web site to crack down on it?”
“We were asked these questions by student representatives, in slightly differing words, at almost every meeting with them during the year. Indeed, it even knocked OUSU’s requests for more money and more representation on University committees into second place in their representations to us.”
OUSU President McCluskey’s initial response over the past week was to call attention to the issue with the creation of a Facebook group named ‘Judge, Jury and Executioner: Proctors Take £10,000’, with over 240 members having joined so far.
Following on from this, there will now be a motion on the issue in the OUSU Council on Friday, demanding action from the Proctors.
OUSU are calling for “the publication of a schedule of fines to ensure that people know the fines they face for various offences,” as well as “an end to the use of Facebook and other Social Networking Sites” in pursuing disciplinary cases, and “the introduction of a more fair and transparent system, suitable for a modern University.”
At the Council, petitions will also be handed out to collect signatures for these demands ahead of a meeting OUSU have scheduled with the Proctors on Thursday of 2nd Week.
McCluskey says that the aim is “not to try and justify trashing – not to try and justify people throwing things at their friends – but to tie down a proper system of fining. There is no explanation of what constitutes a £40 fine and what constitutes a £500 fine.”
“I want to move the debate away from just trashing. What happened last year points to major problems in the system that allow one group of Proctors to pursue a certain agenda, in spite of precedent and the expectations of students based on previous sets of Proctors,” McCluskey continued.
“I agree that things got out of hand last year and that the impact on the local community was detrimental. However, the way to stop it is not to progressively become more punitive. This issue has come up at nearly every Proctor’s meeting with OUSU since 1992 and things haven’t improved.”
“If we’re ever going to see any real change, it’s only going to be by entering into a constructive dialogue with everyone involved and I’m glad that the new Proctors have been more open to listening and engaging with students over this issue and others,” he concluded.
Council bills for clearing up after ‘trashings’ can run into thousands of pounds, but the University fines are not used to pay for this. Instead, an Oxford University Press Office spokeswoman said that “the yearly funds from fines go to a good cause within the University.”
This year, the fines were split equally between the Bodleian Library Redevelopment Fund and the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum.