Universities and colleges should be about open intellectual engagement between students and lecturers, in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Yet for too many students, the spirit of open inquiry is closed by the threat of harassment and sexual assault. This is not acceptable – and we need to do all we can to address it.
We have all been shocked in recent weeks by the numbers of students – in schools as well as universities – sharing testimonies online of sexual harassment and violence. We have also been reminded over the last year of how racial harassment has blighted opportunities for too many students from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds.
Such anecdotal evidence has been powerfully reinforced by research by the National Union of Students (NUS), Universities UK and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) highlighting harassment in higher education.
As the regulator, we have an important role. Our statement of expectations – published today after discussions with students, universities and colleges and third sector organisations – outlines the practical steps that we expect universities and colleges to take in tackling harassment and sexual misconduct that affect their students.
The statement provides a clear and consistent set of standards for colleges and universities to help them to develop and implement effective systems, policies and processes to prevent and respond to incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct.
The statement covers sexual misconduct as well as harassment connected to a range of protected characteristics – including race, religion, disability and sexual orientation. Our expectations extend beyond the campus to social media and the internet, where harassment is increasingly prevalent.
These expectations provide a standard. It is now for all universities and colleges registered with the OfS to put these principles into practice.
Having the right processes is important. Students should feel confident reporting and disclosing incidents, knowing that they will be listened to and their reports will be dealt with appropriately. Staff need the right training to enable them to respond effectively and sensitively to disclosures and reports from students – if only to know to refer students on quickly to whoever is best placed to provide the right support.
Good communication matters too. Universities and colleges need to explain clearly to students, staff and visitors what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. By providing this clarity, as well as raising awareness of the nature and impact of harassment and sexual misconduct, they can help prevent harmful incidents.
How did we get here?
Over the past decade, there have been several inquiries and reports exploring these issues, including from the NUS, the EHRC and Universities UK. Universities and colleges have been working to respond to the issues raised, including through our own £4.7 million student safeguarding programme.
Despite some improvements, progress has been uneven. We still see a lack of consistent and effective systems, policies and procedures across the sector. As a result, students continue to report worrying cases that have not been properly addressed by their university or college.
Using this statement of expectations as a yardstick can go a long way to ensuring students have confidence that cases of harassment and sexual misconduct will be properly addressed. We have not developed it in isolation: we developed it building on existing research, evidence and practice from across the sector as well as through dialogue with student and sector representatives and specialist organisations. We also drew on the experiences of some students faced because of the pandemic.
We are not, at this stage, formally connecting this statement of expectations to specific conditions of registration. It sets out expectations, not regulatory requirements. This should give universities and colleges the time and opportunity to review their policies, systems and procedures before the next academic year drawing on these expectations.
What comes next?
Publishing this statement of expectations represents a major step in ensuring that all students feel safe during their time in higher education. It is a real opportunity for universities and colleges to make a difference and I would strongly urge them to grasp it.
Over the next year we will examine how universities and colleges have responded. We will particularly want to hear from students and students’ unions that things are changing for the better. As part of this process, we will consider options for connecting the statement directly to our conditions of registration.
Dealing effectively with harassment and sexual misconduct – wherever it may occur – will require action, commitment and collaboration. The result should be that meaningful support is provided to students when they need it, and that all incidents are dealt with effectively and sensitively. That is the least students should expect and we are determined to make sure they get it.