In January 2020, we launched a consultation which set out proposals for the OfS regulation of harassment and sexual misconduct affecting students in higher education providers. The consultation sought views on a proposed statement of expectations relating to providers’ processes, policies and systems to prevent and respond to harassment and sexual misconduct.
The consultation also proposed an approach to using elements of the proposed statement of expectations in assessing compliance with existing ongoing conditions of registration where there was evidence that registered providers had not effectively addressed harassment and sexual misconduct cases raised through their student complaints processes.
The consultation was one of several that we paused during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020). This was part of our wider approach to reduce burden at a time of crisis and help universities and colleges support and protect their students.
We are progressing work on these important issues and in doing so are adapting our approach to take account of the experience of the last year, and as part of our wider work to review and reset our regulatory requirements.
We intend to:
- Engage with student and sector representative bodies and other stakeholders in the coming weeks to understand specifically how the events of this past year may affect the proposed statement of expectations. We also want to understand the additional challenges faced by some students because of the pandemic, including online harassment and domestic abuse.
- In Spring 2021, fast-track the publication of a statement of expectations relating to providers’ systems, policies and processes to prevent and respond to harassment and sexual misconduct. This will provide clarity about our expectations in this important area and give universities and colleges the opportunity to review and renew their systems, policies and processes before the beginning of the next academic year.
In finalising the statement of expectations, we will consider feedback already received, through the consultation responses and the engagement we carried out with students and providers in early 2020. We are grateful to all of those who have engaged with this work so far.
The proposed statement of expectations has been developed through a review of best practice, research and evidence, and we are aware of the good work that many universities and colleges are already taking in this area.
Once finalised, the statement of expectations will support the prevention and effective response to issues of harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education.
Reviewing regulatory requirements
As part of our wider work to review and reset our regulatory requirements we expect to consider, later this year, whether – and if so how – we need to update our regulatory requirements that relate to consumer protection law.
There has been much discussion during the pandemic about students’ rights as consumers and we want to reflect on the lessons learned during this period.
As part of this process, we will consider how we set requirements relating to complaints-handling arrangements and options for connecting the statement of expectations to the requirements expressed in conditions of registration.
This would mean that we could use our enforcement powers where universities and colleges do not have robust, fair and effective complaints procedures in relation to harassment and sexual misconduct.
In the meantime, universities and colleges must continue to satisfy our existing requirements. Where we receive information about harassment or sexual misconduct at a provider, for example through notifications from staff or students, we may take action if we consider that the provider is at increased risk of breach, or has breached, any of its existing conditions of registration.
We will consider the types of changes providers make in response to the publication of the statement of expectations during the 2021-22 academic year.
We will consider the evidence we gather on institutional practice and any issues arising in this area as we develop our future approach.