How to prepare for Freshers week

School is out, and the 20/21 academic year is officially over. Incoming students and staff alike are beginning to plan for the new year, and the week that kicks it all off; Freshers week

Timetables are being mapped out, course content is being refined, induction talks are being prepared, but how much planning is going into protecting student safety?

As we approach the new academic year, it’s important to reflect back on the past 18 months and acknowledge that this year’s Freshers will be unique to any that have come before. The global pandemic has changed the ways in which we interact, learn and communicate. 

Whether in 2021 students and staff will be returning to campus full time, or you’re planning a more hybrid approach to learning at your University, harassment and behavioural misconduct will continue to be an undeniable truth. To see that you only need to look as far as any one of the movements, reports, stories or documentaries that have come out over the past year. 

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Plus there are the statistics that tell us an estimated 1 in 20 students leave university due to racial harassment, around 50,000 incidents of sexual abuse or harassment take place at university every year (Unsafe Spaces, 2020), yet reporting of these incidents is still too low, with only 2% of sexual assault victims feeling able to report their experience to their university.

Yet universities tend to shy away from the reality of harassment on campus and sometimes don’t prioritise the need to prevent this kind of behaviour. 

Awareness of these issues is growing, adding weight to the pre-existing responsibility of universities to showcase the work they’re doing to combat harassment on campus and safeguard students. As we’ve stated in previous blogs, accepting that there is an issue that your University needs to deal with isn’t an acceptance of culpability, but a commitment to your community that you’re there to support when these incidents do occur. It is good practice and duty to have an effective plan in place, and to clearly communicate that to your incoming students. 

This past month across social media we’ve been discussing ways in which universities can prepare for the upcoming Freshers week, giving tips, and sharing our thoughts. This blog is a culmination of our thinking, and covers all the things university staff and student representatives should be considering as they plan for the start of what will be a very different year.

We’ll cover:

  • Process and policy communication
  • Induction talks and training
  • The importance of reporting platforms

Process and policy communication

University represents a microcosm of the world around it. Your incoming students will be arriving from across the globe, be of varying ages, backgrounds and have differing levels of understanding of acceptable behaviour. While preventative work may be the best way to stop harassment and misconduct, in the fast paced induction week, you won’t have much time to influence behavioural change or thinking.

What you can do is have clear policies that outline behavioural expectations of all staff and students. A general statement of expectations may be suitable as it will be easier to digest along with induction materials from all other areas of an incoming student’s life. However it is important that this links to more specific expectations and policies around other themes, such as sexual misconduct policies, anti-racism policies, and so on. A statement of expectations should include reference to these key themes: ‘impact vs intent’, ‘consent’, ‘diversity and inclusion’, ‘dignity and respect’, ‘bullying and harassment’, ‘illegal activity’, ‘social media/online interactions’, although this is not an exhaustive list and you may choose to include more.

Knowing what’s expected of you and others can help to remove doubt when bad behaviour does occur. Ensuring this sits beside clear discipline policy and process for reporting is key. The clarity of these documents helps to remove multiple barriers to reporting, including uncertainty of what would happen with a report, and doubt that anything will be done.

This statement of behavioural expectations and all supporting policies is a key first step to helping to safeguard students. Assume that it is highly likely that many incoming students may not have been taught about appropriate behaviour prior to arriving on campus. As a result, understanding their experiences if they are victims of harassment or misconduct may not be easy. You can support this by having easy to access support articles available for students to find. The Support section of our Report + Support™ software is a good example of how this information can be easily prepared and then found by students.

Diversity & Intersectionality

“This year has shown us the importance of diversity & inclusion. #University policies that you thought were sufficient may be excluding some of your most marginalised students.”

The diversity of your student body should be centred in all process and policy development. Ahead of the new year it’s important that you review policies with an intersectional lens, taking into consideration how multiply-marginalised individuals may experience harassment in your university. For example, understanding how micro-aggressions and gender-based violence might compound the impact of unacceptable behaviour is vital in planning clear support systems for women of colour within your institution. Having clear definitions in your policies, and taking this consideration through to your support and discipline policies is good practice in supporting marginalised students.

Signposting

It is likely that you’ll have a team of trained staff on hand to manage reports and support students. In Week 1, it is unlikely your students will know or remember where these members of staff are at all times, or how to contact them. Increasing first responder training doesn’t need to be costly. Simply ensuring that the individuals that are most likely to make contact with your incoming students are clear on where to access policies, how to report and how to respond to a disclosure without creating additional barriers to reporting is vital, this includes academic staff, tutors, and student representatives.

Induction talks & training 

Student engagement and collaboration

“Student support doesn’t just mean finding solutions when things go wrong, it’s also about creating an environment that prevents things going wrong in the first place” - Culture Shift, Twitter, Jul 22.

If everything we’ve discussed so far is groundwork, then induction talks are your first opportunity to start laying the bricks. It’s still easy to remember the induction talks on avoiding kitchen fires and checking your flatmates for signs of meningitis. Both unlikely, but it was good to know what to look for. Most of us didn’t enter our accommodation worried one of our peers would be rushed to hospital, and there was no deep distrust of our flatmates being left alone in the kitchen, but we knew what to do in the event something did go wrong. 

Talking to your students about taking safety precautions, and signposting to support systems is your responsibility. This can start before induction talks too. Pre-arrival information packages can include key information on where to find policies and processes, who your key support staff are, and how to disclose and report misconduct. 

Your work in this space shouldn’t end after induction week. The conversation should continue all year round with training and campaigning aimed at educating students on relevant issues. It should be made clear in your induction that you’ll be consistently communicating similar activity, be that in mandatory modules, upcoming campaigns, or optional training courses to help cement the importance of tackling harassment within your university.

Communication with returning students 

Returning students play a key role in setting the cultural tone of your university. First years will largely look to existing students to understand what behaviour is acceptable and praised and what is not tolerated on campus.

As the academic year starts again, be sure to refresh your returning students on acceptable and inappropriate behaviour and of the policies and procedures that govern your action in this area.

As an institution your responsibility is to prepare students to be citizens of the world. The impact you have on students at university will ricochet far beyond the borders of your campus. So when you think about Freshers week, think beyond just your incoming students, and consider how all of your students need to be communicated with to continue developing a positive, safe, and inclusive culture.

The importance of reporting systems

So you have your processes in place. Your policies have been evaluated to ensure that they help to support your most marginalised students. Your student reps and your staff are prepared to signpost students should they need support, and you’ve told students all about the work you’re doing to make sure that their experience at university is a happy one. Great! Now for the most important part… 

Making the reality of reporting live up to expectations.

The first step is having clear and consistent reporting processes. Report + Support™ is a tailored system that allows students to disclose and report misconduct either anonymously or named if they’re seeking further support or action. Giving victim-survivors options is a fundamental principle of taking a survivor-centred approach to responding to harassment cases. 

Not only does an online reporting system make the process clear, but it is also easy to implement across your entire campus, meaning that there’s consistency in experiences when reporting. Our work with over 60 universities across the UK has shown that when one student has a positive experience of reporting, the likelihood of further reports is increased.

How you deal with reports and complaints will need to be tailored to the resources available within your university, however you can read our blog on responding effectively to student complaints for an in depth look at how you should set up for success when managing complaints. 

This post-pandemic induction week is going to be a new experience for all universities. It’s important to remember that you won’t be alone, and you can learn from your peers. If you’re interested in joining our community of practice; a space for Culture Shifters to come together and discuss best practice action for making change, then get in touch with our team today to find out more!

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