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Online Social Profiling - could universities be forced to think more seriously about the type of students they accept into their institutions?

Maggie Anderson, HR Program Leader at Northampton University raises the question whether universities should overlook online behaviour of students on the basis they are a place to encourage open dialogue and freedom of expression.

As a university lecturer who specialises in graduate employability, I spend a lot of my time warning students of the danger of inappropriate online behaviour, postings, photos and comments.  I advise them that potential employers will almost always Google applicants before offering interviews and will almost certainly Google them before making any firm job offe

When students receive this advice they often respond with cries of “that’s not fair!”, “but I said that when I was young and stupid”, “we are young and do spend lots of time socialising and enjoying ourselves”, “this is not who I am at work” and many more. What many of these students still do not realise is that online postings are in the public domain and nothing is really private, despite them somehow feeling that this should be the case.

From an employer’s perspective I can understand the growing risk of potential employee’s online behaviour impacting negatively on their business or their brand and this concern is mirrored by the increased inclusion of social media and behaviour policies now being added to contracts of employment. Most of these clauses or additions to contracts link directly to the avoidance of bringing the organisation into disrepute. Historically employees were warned of the risk of bringing the company into disrepute in terms of their “real life” behaviour and that violations could lead to disciplinary action or even dismissal.

But it is not only employers who impose this type of warning and sanction but also service providers and other institutions. Universities have very clear policies and procedures in terms of acceptable behaviour which are articulated to students in student handbooks and associated policies and procedures.  Similar to contracts of employment students can be subject disciplinary action if their conduct or behaviour is considered to bring their university into disrepute.

Recent Cases Affecting Universities Policies

‘Horniest student’ to face disciplinary hearing by Exeter Uni Read

The case of student Elina Desaine from Exeter University who was awarded the prestigious title of ‘Britain’s Horniest Student’ in 2013. This allegedly resulted in Miss Desaine facing a non-academic disciplinary on the grounds of bringing the university’s reputation into disrepute. 

Stirling University hockey players caught chanting sexist songs on public bus Read

A two-minute video posted on YouTube showed male students from Stirling University making jokes about miscarriages and appearing to mock Nazi salutes after a German-related joke. The video received 35,000 hits in its first five days which prompted the university to carry out an investigation and take appropriate disciplinary action. Despite showing great entrepreneurial expertise, FitFinder creator Rich Martell was forced to shut down his website, after facing disciplinary action from his university (UCL), who accused him of bringing the university into disrepute due to the website being considered to encourage sexual harassment.

Dear university of Cambridge, Read

Even the most elite universities have found themselves under scrutiny; including the case of a student from Cambridge University who was photographed vandalising the Cenotaph in Central London, during the tuition fee protests on 9th December 2010. This sparked a freedom of information request by angry members of the public demanding to know the outcome of any disciplinary action that would be taken by Cambridge University.

Bring a Fit Jew? How stupid can clever students be? Read

Another example is the Oxford University rugby socials which have encouraged its members to “bring a fit Jew” night or to “black up” for Safari night, which resulted in a row between the rugby boys and the students’ union who demanded that the university take action against this type of offensive behaviour.

Oxford student who boasted about her 'great rack' fined £120 for bringing Union in to disrepute Read

There was also the case of the very beautiful Oxford university student, Madelaine Grant, who boasted about her 'great rack' in an election flyer and was subsequently fined £120 for bringing the union into disrepute.

What guidance is available?

Recent guidance, necessitated by student demonstrations in 2010, advises universities on the law regarding inappropriate conduct and possible sanctions .However it is more difficult in this type of environment as a university should arguably create an environment of free expression and the exploration of alternative views. As academics we consider universities to provide the luxury of a period of exploration of different and conflicting ideas and the opportunity to make informed judgments and decisions.

However in light of some of the cases highlighted above, could universities be forced to think more seriously about the type of students they accept into their institutions and will universities, like employers, have to start seriously considering risk aversion by socially profiling their applicants?

Could admissions officers, academics and administrators look at online profiles and behaviours as a potential indicator to weigh up the risk of an individual bringing the university into disrepute?

Do we want to actively seek out individuals who hold extreme views which would offend others and damage the reputation of our institution and should we be taking steps to ensure that it is not our university name and logo on the front page of a newspaper for all the wrong reasons?

The jury is out …





 The SP Index are thought leaders in Online Social Profiling and are the UK's leading supplier of compliant profiling.
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