Preventing harassment in university is a job for everyone

This blog was written for the intention of supporting staff and students in preventing harassment in higher education, however the content can be taken and applied to preventing workplace harassment and improving corporate cultures. If you’d like a read that is specific to workplace culture, click here.

Preventing harassment in university is a job for everyone: Here’s why and how you can help


Harassment on campus is endemic. The majority of university students have experienced some form of harassment whilst in higher education, from bullying to assault, across all of the protected characteristics, and beyond. The issue isn’t only amongst students, with staff also experiencing harassment at a worrying rate.

Whilst the road might not be a short one, the need for change is clear. Our latest guidance, Exceeding Expectations; a handbook for tackling harassment in higher education, provides an in depth framework for institutions wanting to create lasting change. In this blog, we’ll focus on preventing harassment, what actions can be taken, and who can take them, so that collectively we can create a safer and happier environment for all staff and students in higher education.

Why preventing harassment is the first line of defence 

Taking steps to improve your institutional culture is a good way to prevent harassment from happening in the first place. It also creates a positive environment for normalising reporting, and ensuring the safety and support for victim-survivors and reporting parties.

It’s important to remember that when harassment and unacceptable behaviour does occur you need to have the policies, processes and systems in place to ensure that victim-survivors are supported. Prevention work should not be a replacement for adequate planning. 

Who can prevent harassment on campus?

Ultimately, the potential perpetrator is responsible for stopping harassment from happening. It’s important to remember that with all of the good will and planning in the world, the responsibility for not harassing other people falls on the individual. However we need to consider how university staff and leaders set the tone for acceptable behaviour through policies and statements of behavioural expectation; how training is mandatory for educating individuals on what behaviour is acceptable and what is not; how campaigning is a fundamental instrument of behavioural change; and how student communities influence behaviour by setting social norms.

The role of senior leadership

As a senior leader, maintaining the financial and reputational integrity of the university is a high priority. Failing to prevent a culture of harassment can greatly impact these two pillars of success in a number of ways. It falls on leadership to demonstrate the importance of tackling harassment on campus. If it’s not deemed to be a priority at the top levels of university management, then progress throughout the institution will falter. 

Senior leadership must make clear in their actions and behaviours that harassment will not be tolerated and will be dealt with directly. They must challenge their staff throughout the institution to uphold these principles. They must empower their teams to take action, and ensure their teams are efficiently resourced to create change. 

Without senior leaders supporting efforts to create change, even the teams with the best intentions and sound strategies will struggle.

The role of student support officers

If you’re responsible for executing change, leading steering committees, managing the process of support, it is often likely that the burden of change falls heavily on your shoulders. Your team will have targets to hit, questions will often default back to you, and with this, you will very possibly find yourself time and resource poor.

Our latest guidance on tackling harassment goes into more depth on these three key tips:


  • Don’t reinvent the wheel

Use the resources you have and identifying how to extend their purpose. You'll save time, energy, and free up your team to address more issues.

  • Invest into your team

The importance of training and resource investment, why you need it, and who it needs to be offered to.

  • The importance and value of collaboration

Using the expertise of other groups, internal and external, to increase your efficiency.

Read more on this and how to deliver best in class activity by downloading our guidance here.

The role of student unions & student representatives

Ultimately, cultures are the sum of behaviours of people within a community. Students need to lead change, and hold each other to account. Students need to pressure the university to continue investing into change, but need to be receptive to any ensuing work, and encourage others to push for change too. 

Our guidance for student representatives focuses on working with the university, supporting students and student groups, campaigning, and importantly, managing the challenge of annual student turnovers. 

To read more on this, download our interactive handbook.

Creating change is everyone’s responsibility. Without support and input from each of these key stakeholder groups it will be very difficult to effectively tackle harassment. Consultation, discussions, and collaboration across the institution are all vital. If you’re struggling to engage any areas of your institution along the journey to change you may find our guidance on tackling harassment useful. You can download our comprehensive handbook for free by clicking here.

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