Exceeding expectations to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct in HE

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in incredibly challenging times for higher education (HE) institutions. From reports of increased hate crime, particularly amongst the Chinese population, to students experiencing a sharp increase in online harassment. As such, the team here at Culture Shift is encouraging institutions to use this critical time to assess practises and processes to ensure the entire student population feels safe and included. 

Towards the end of 2019, it was revealed that reports of rape, sexual assault and harassment at UK universities have tripled in three years, with data from 124 of 157 universities highlighting that not all have robust systems to prevent or respond to sexual violence. Due to the growing issue, which continues to be rife on campuses across the UK, the Office for Students (OfS) set out suggested expectations for universities and colleges to follow. 

In response to OfS’ consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct in HE, which is currently paused due to the pandemic, we have released a report highlighting key takeaways for institutions to implement in order to tackle problematic behaviour and exceed the expectations set out.

Now is the time to evaluate systemic inequity within institutions and ensure there is effective support in place for those further marginalised by recent events. Our report hones in on recommendations for HE institutions to tackle racial harassment and sexual misconduct, including outlining a survivor-centric approach, while also offering advice for institutions to create safe and inclusive spaces where those affected can report and access appropriate support.

As part of the report, we also interviewed prominent figures from various organisations including University College London (UCL), Rape Crisis South London, Stop Hate UK, University of Surrey, Goldsmiths, and University of London, on everything from how they support survivors of harassment and sexual misconduct, to the work they’re doing to break down barriers and tackle the issue. 

The core takeaways from our report that HE institutions can adopt to instil change now, include: 

  • Helping to remove barriers to reporting by making the reporting process easier
  • Sharing regular updates/signposting to different support services, including any specialist partnerships the university may have in place
  • Reviewing how the university receives disclosures or reports and reducing the number of times a person may need to disclose or share their information
  • Embedding principles of fair treatment within investigation processes to ensure this is carried out swiftly and the report is shared with both parties
  • Ensuring staff and students are appropriately trained to receive disclosures
  • Consistently and persistently communicating the institution’s stance on harassment and sexual misconduct, as well as the reporting pathways and support available

Despite the fact that the consultation is currently paused by the Office for Students, institutions have long-needed to improve their handling of harassment and sexual harassment. Prevalence is still too high and reporting levels too low. We know from the consultation what the expectations are likely to be, so universities actually have the opportunity to get ahead and put things in place so they can exceed them, not just meet them. 

This report builds on the work from the EHRC, NUS, UUK and the 1752 Group and gives universities practical advice to drive real positive change. I truly believe we cannot wait for pressure from the regulator to do the right thing, the time is now to create a world of work and study which is safe, inclusive and supportive for everyone. 

The evidence to prove that no place is untouched by this problem is irrefutable. Now it’s time for institutions to take action and a preventative approach to tackling problematic behaviour. 

To see more insights and recommendations, download the full ‘exceeding expectations: guidance on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct’ report here

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