Exceeding Expectations: The OfS’ guidance can (and should) go further 

With September in touching distance and with that, the first in-person Induction Week for two years, university leaders need to be sharpening their focus and fostering a sense of urgency around the pervasive issue of harassment on campus. 

When in April this year, the Office for Students released its finalised Statement of Expectations; a 7-point guidance for universities on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct on campus, it was welcomed. However, while undoubtedly something is better than nothing, we believe the guidance was long overdue and could go further. Notably, we worry that it opens up the possibility of universities doing work simply to 'tick boxes', without creating meaningful and long-lasting change. 

So, this week we’ve launched some recommendations that build directly on the OfS' guidance, providing more robust direction and advice for universities looking to tackle harassment and create lasting change. For clarity, we use ‘harassment’ as an umbrella term covering all forms of sexual misconduct, racial abuse, discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ community, bullying and any behaviour deemed to be inappropriate by the victim. 

Existing work in the education sector has focused heavily on sexual violence on campus. The work here has been essential and positive, however too often the focus of these conversations falls back to sexual misconduct. We believe institutions can learn from their work in this area, and apply it to harassment of all kinds, helping to create safer and happier environments for all staff and students. 

Our recommendations 

Attempting to sum up a 5000+-word handbook into a 950-word blog means it won’t be comprehensive, however, we’ve broken it down into our six key action points below. If you have time to consult the full document, you can find it here. 

  • Action #1: Build prevention tactics into your strategy and budget 

Unfortunately, harassment continues to exist in institutions despite the existence of behavioural and disciplinary policies. Universities need to move beyond policy, and ingrain action into their ways of working. Our video interview Graham Towl provides advice on how to plan anti-harassment activity into your strategy, on-board senior leadership, and develop realistic tactics to help prioritise your budget.

  • Action #2: Use real-time data to guide effective planning and governance

Creating change can be time consuming, and often the governing bodies and task forces created to tackle harassment are time poor. Gathering data effectively, and in real time can ensure that you’re acting on the known risks within your institution. Our best practice case study with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine provides a great perspective on how data can be used to prioritise your planning and inform governing bodies. 

  • Action #3: Build partnerships to create change from the bottom up 

Change cannot only come from the top down. A bottom-up approach needs to be considered in the development of policies and procedures. However, in order for these policies to be effective, you also need to understand the cultures that are causing problematic behaviour on campus. This requires the ability to effectively communicate with diverse student groups.

Empowering diverse student groups to speak up and engage in the process is vital to ensuring that your support structures don’t ignore some of your most vulnerable students and staff. We spoke with the Birmingham City University Students’ Union to understand how they create change from the bottom up. 

  • Action #4: Combine targeted training with targeted campaigning 

Compulsory training without context can often be ineffective, impacting the internalisation and implementation of learnings. Trainees need to understand the relevance and importance of training, and it needs to be targeted and relevant to the contribution of specific groups into your university. Communication on why it is needed is also imperative. When planning your training strategy, first understand what can be delivered internally and be honest about where external expertise is necessary. Watch our case study with SOAS to see how they’re creating training programmes tailored to the needs and requirements of their students and staff.

  • Action #5: Break down barriers to disclosing and reporting 

98% of cases go unreported. There are a variety of reasons why, and these need to be deeply understood. Not only so you can campaign and create policies to remove barriers for students, but to ensure that you have a full view of the issues impacting your university, and can truly begin to tackle harassment. This requires research, and providing students with multiple options for disclosing information that suit their needs and comfort. In our case study with Bath Spa University you can see how they’re understanding and removing barriers to reporting.

  • Action #6: Support students throughout the reporting process 

Reporting cases of harassment can be emotionally and mentally difficult. Trauma can be compounded by difficult reporting processes, therefore it’s important to ensure that a lack of information doesn’t become a barrier to reporting. Reducing the negative impact of reporting not only makes the process smoother but also helps to build a positive culture of reporting. We spoke to Clarissa Humphrey’s for an expert opinion on best practice when managing student complaints and investigations.

Accountability considerations for senior leaders 

We believe that when it comes to harassment, senior teams should be held accountable to the same expectations/sanctions as not achieving other growth targets. So, we also suggest five key questions HE leaders should ask themselves:

  • Do you have data showing the existence of harassment issues within your institution? If not directly, do you know where to get it?
  • Do you understand the impact that harassment is having on your students in terms of use of support services, academic performance, dropout and applicant rates?
  • Do you know where issues within your university are most prevalent?
  • Do you know how frequently your support, discipline and procedural policies and processes are updated?
  • Do you know the level of investment into tackling harassment on campus?

Working together for change

While the OfS’ guidance is undoubtedly essential, from every angle HE providers are being reminded of the need to do more when it comes to harassment. A new academic year brings with it another opportunity for positive change, so we show our support and respect to those already working hard to create this change and to those starting out on their journey to creating safer places of study everywhere. 

To download our Exceeding Expectations handbook and start putting best practice advice in to action, click here

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