Mediation and Higher Education: Should Universities Enrol?

Scott McIver Articles

With students settling back into their accommodation and Freshers’ Week just around the corner, we thought it would be the perfect time to look at yet another industry that often benefits from mediation – the Higher Education sector.

As many will be aware, being at university provides plenty of opportunities for conflict to arise. Students are herded into flats with complete strangers, inhibitions go out the window on just about every night out, and the pressures of exams rear their ugly head yet again. And, of course, this may well be the first time that the individual has lived away from home and, in turn, “the bank of Mum and Dad”. It can be quite the change of scenery, to say the least!

So what sort of disputes are there in university life?

Student / Student
Probably the most common variation of participants and one that is often brought up as the main motivation behind our in-house training courses. Nowadays, we are seeing more and more institutions training their students’ union and accommodation staff in conflict resolution, so that they can resolve issues between students at the earliest possible opportunity. This includes disputes over group work, residence issues, or even friendships and romances that turn sour. More recently, we are also seeing a positive and proactive movement against bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment, all of which can be resolved through mediation if caught early enough.

Student / Staff
Not as frequent as disputes between students, but a situation that would almost certainly be worse for everyone involved. With the cost of Higher Education rising, students, as well as those who support them, want to make sure that they are getting the best value for money they can, including the quality of teaching. As such, it is important that when criticisms of tuition and support do arise, including allegations of inappropriate behaviour and discrimination by staff, that they are dealt with swiftly and privately. Mediation has a great track record in areas such as this and can help to find an agreeable outcome for all parties involved.

Staff / Staff
Your traditional workplace mediation cases that make up the bread and butter of most providers’ work. Disputes can include disagreements over management styles, bullying and harassment, communication breakdowns, and just plain old personality clashes, all issues in which mediation has repeatedly proven to be effective in. Of course, with the university focusing on providing the best possible student experience, the last thing they want is for productivity to be thrown off or a conflict between employees to leak into other aspects of the university.

As you can see, mediation has applications that are relevant for all areas of how a university runs. Whether it be in the offices behind-the-scenes, or on the frontlines of the campus, mediation helps to resolve conflict in many different situations.

But how does it actually work, and why is it effective?

Releasing tension
Mediation provides a great opportunity for participants to get together and defuse any anger and frustration that has built up throughout the conflict. This is done in a controlled environment with an experienced facilitator present, making sure that this is all done in a fair and non-damaging way. By doing this, we can address issues that would get in the way of the parties living, talking or working with each other, as well as getting them out into the open for everyone to hear.

Understanding impact
Quite often, we are completely oblivious as to how our actions and behaviour affect those around us. With all participants sharing their side of the story, including thoughts, opinions and feelings, we can begin to promote understanding and empathy between them. As a result, we can then start to build constructive and future-focused dialogue, with the mediator making sure that this is done in a non-persecutory and blameless way.

Re-framing is a skill that is useful throughout the mediation process and is a particularly effective skill for keeping the mediation moving forwards in a constructive way. It is used to lessen the resistance and hostility that may be felt by a disputing party in response to what the other party says, effectively shifting their mindset without the mediator actively weighing in.
The aims of re-framing are to:

• Switch the focus from the past to the future
• Move away from blame and focus instead on people’s responsibility
• Help people to leave entrenched positions and consider their underlying interests

It is for these reasons that mediation has many widespread benefits across a number of different industries, including Higher Education. And, whilst we are seeing an increase in the number of institutions putting mediation to use, we hope to see more universities utilise it to provide the best possible student experience.

And how can Higher Education providers implement mediation?

External mediators
By using one of our on-demand external mediators, you can be sure of an independent and impartial service to help resolve your disputes. We operate on a five-day turnaround, meaning we can get someone out to you within the week.

In-house training for complaints handling
As education providers will know, complaints against the institution can be extremely harmful, affecting their overall statistics and garnering much unwanted attention. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) now also requires universities to exhaust all local options of resolving complaints before getting involved themselves, making mediation an ideal option to have at your disposal.

In-house mediation resource
By having a bank of trained and accredited mediators on-call, disputes can be nipped in the bud quickly and privately. Regardless of who is involved and what it concerns, the organisation can provide much-needed support to stop unnecessary conflict that might otherwise get in the way.

At the end of the day, everything that a university does is for the benefit of its students. So, when conflict does arise, whether it be regarding learning and welfare issues, or staff-to-staff disputes that risk seeping out, it is in everyone’s best interests to resolve them quickly and effectively.

Mediation can help to make this process more streamlined, allowing them to focus on providing the best possible learning experience they can for their students.

View our range of in-house training courses for universities and colleges
Train to become an accredited mediator with our Interpersonal Mediation Practitioner’s Certificate
View our free mediation webinars, including ‘Mediation in Higher Education
See it all in action at one of our free mediation showcases