Universities must do more to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment – watchdog

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·5-min read

Universities and colleges should take urgent action and do more to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment affecting students, the regulator has said.

The Office for Students (OfS) is calling on all providers to review their sexual misconduct and harassment policies, systems and procedures by the summer.

The call came after more than 80 British universities were named on a website where students have been anonymously sharing experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and misogyny.

A number of the UK’s top institutions, including Exeter and Oxford, were mentioned more than 50 times on the Everyone’s Invited website – which has highlighted allegations of a “rape culture” in education settings.

England’s universities watchdog has published its “statement of expectations” – which outlines the practical steps that institutions should be taking to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct on campus.

The OfS said all institutions should have processes in place to allow students to report any incidents and work to minimise potential barriers to reporting – and it adds institutions should clearly communicate how they may respond to anonymous reports, or those made by third-party reporting centres.

The statement adds that training should be made available for all staff and students – which could cover bystander initiatives, consent and handling disclosures – to raise awareness of harassment and sexual misconduct.

Providers should ensure that investigatory procedures are fair – and that those involved get effective pastoral support – and they should set out behavioural expectations for all students, staff and visitors.

The watchdog will consider connecting this statement of expectations directly to the registration conditions for universities and colleges in future.

OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “Despite some improvements, progress has been uneven. We still see a lack of consistent and effective systems, policies and procedures across the sector.

“As a result, students continue to report worrying cases that have not been properly addressed by their university or college.”

On the OfS’s statement, Ms Dandridge added: “It is now for all universities and colleges registered with the OfS to put these principles into practice.

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“Having the right processes is important. Students should feel confident reporting and disclosing incidents, knowing that they will be listened to and their reports will be dealt with appropriately.

“Staff need the right training to enable them to respond effectively and sensitively to disclosures and reports from students – if only to know to refer students on quickly to whoever is best placed to provide the right support.

“Good communication matters too. Universities and colleges need to explain clearly to students, staff and visitors what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.”

In a blog for the OfS website, she said: “Using this statement of expectations as a yardstick can go a long way to ensuring students have confidence that cases of harassment and sexual misconduct will be properly addressed.”

At this stage, the higher education watchdog is not formally connecting the statement of expectations to regulatory requirements.

“This should give universities and colleges the time and opportunity to review their policies, systems and procedures before the next academic year, drawing on these expectations,” Ms Dandridge said.

On the statement of expectations, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “We expect universities to follow these and I would urge all universities to look at this seriously and take appropriate action where necessary.

“No student or young person should ever have to experience abuse, and I urge anyone who feels they have been a victim of sexual harassment to speak to someone they trust, whether that be family, friends, their university or the police.”

The move came after Soma Sara, founder of the Everyone’s Invited website, told the PA news agency that “rape culture” is in all universities.

Earlier this month, Ofsted said it would be visiting a sample of schools and carrying out a review into whether institutions have effective safeguarding measures in place following allegations of sexual abuse.

Everyone’s Invited has now turned its attention to UK universities and colleges which have been recently named by students.

On the OfS’s call for action, Ms Sara said: “Everyone’s Invited welcomes the attention on addressing sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in universities.

“We hope that this will help to reduce the prevalence of rape culture and improve the much needed support of survivors on university campuses across the UK.”

Ms Dandridge added: “Publishing this statement of expectations represents a major step in ensuring that all students feel safe during their time in higher education. It is a real opportunity for universities and colleges to make a difference and I would strongly urge them to grasp it.

“Over the next year we will examine how universities and colleges have responded. We will particularly want to hear from students and students’ unions that things are changing for the better.

“As part of this process, we will consider options for connecting the statement directly to our conditions of registration.

“Dealing effectively with harassment and sexual misconduct – wherever it may occur – will require action, commitment and collaboration.

“The result should be that meaningful support is provided to students when they need it, and that all incidents are dealt with effectively and sensitively. That is the least students should expect and we are determined to make sure they get it.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said: “We welcome the OfS’s commitment to tackling all forms of harassment in higher education and are pleased to see that the statement of expectations draws heavily on UUK’s existing Changing the Culture framework.

“Universities have accelerated efforts to address harassment and misconduct in recent years and are in no doubt of the urgent need for progress, but the evidence shows there is still a long way to go.

“We will continue supporting our members to bring about culture change and embed policies and best practice to ensure universities become safer places to live, work and study – including online.

“We look forward to working with the OfS to more fully understand how they intend to implement the statement of expectations, including timescales, as well as how it aligns with the OfS’ role as a risk-based and proportionate regulator.”