If you are a student you may have witnessed someone being groped at a university social event. Perhaps you know of someone who has experienced racist bullying within a sports club? Or suffered sexual violence or racist harassment whilst on placement? You may have even experienced something like this yourself.
These are all examples of harassment or what is called ‘sexual misconduct’ that should not be tolerated but have unfortunately become entrenched within the student experience.
What is happening?
Events in recent years have turned attention to issues of sexual violence and racism within society, including in universities. They have also sparked initiatives designed to try and tackle it. These include apps and campaigns that in a way have made it easier for students to stay in contact with the people they trust – or at least to speak more freely about their experiences. However, despite increased discourse, figures remain stark in showing how far there is to go in addressing sexual and racist violence.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2021 students were more likely to have experienced sexual assault than any other group. A 2019 report highlighted how nearly one in three Black and Asian respondents had experienced racism on campus whilst studying.
Sexual misconduct is just one form of behaviour that can make university campuses unsafe and uncomfortable for students. Other forms may be based on aspects of students' identities, including protected characteristics like sexual orientation, religion or belief and gender reassignment. The internet has also complicated experiences of harassment, meaning that is it not just taking place on campuses but can follow individuals’ home through its perpetration online.
Although these figures make for stark reading, they outline the experiences many students have lived through and pose a threat to the university experiences of many others. It’s important that the regulator, universities and colleges are realistic about the prevalence of these incidents.
Forms of harassment and sexual misconduct
Harassment can take many forms and could include anything from racist or misogynistic jokes disguised as banter, to ostracising someone from a group because of their differences. Other examples of harassment may include ridiculing someone’s religious beliefs or cultural practices. The OfS’s proposed definition of harassment also includes physical violence. This could include behaviour that has escalated to a physical attack.
Sexual misconduct also takes many forms and may include catcalling, groping or unwanted sexual remarks, and spiking drinks. It may also include crimes such as rape.
Although this list is not comprehensive, it outlines some examples of different ways students can experience harassment or behaviour that constitutes misconduct. Although these behaviours are not unique to higher education, there has been increased attention on their occurrences in recent years, as well as the impact harassment or misconduct can have on students' experiences of university and college.
Student advocate groups such as Bold Voices or Not On My Campus UK have been calling for provisions, protections and policies to address these issues. Examples include calls for the end of the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases where students have experienced sexual misconduct or harassment.
The impact on students
Experiencing sexual harassment or assault at university can have a profound disruption on an individual’s studies. It might even lead to students dropping out of their courses.
Not only can this have a profound impact on a student’s experience of university, but it may also lead to lasting struggles with mental and physical health. As recently as the last few months, graduate, survivor, and activist Ellie Wilson has shared how being sexually assaulted at university had a significant impact on her mental health, and her experience of seeking justice for what she went through.
Although the data on the extent of sexual harassment and assault within higher education is limited, many students know through personal experience how commonplace it is. Some would use the language of ‘rape culture’ to refer to the normalisation of sexual violence within society – including in spaces of learning.
It is not uncommon for harassment and assaults to take place in university-owned venues such as halls of residence or nightclubs or other social places that play a role in shaping the student community and which should be safe spaces. The university and college experience should be free from the threat of harassment, assault, or abuse – as student voices have made clear, this is of vital importance to them.
Students can’t be silenced
For anyone who has a stake in student life – not just students themselves, but also parents, guardians, universities and others – these examples are concerning. And they may be wondering what the OfS is doing on the issue.
In 2021, the OfS published a statement of expectations, setting out a consistent set of standards that universities and colleges should follow to develop and implement effective ways to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct. The OfS is now consulting on going a step further, to underpin principles to protect students from harassment and sexual misconduct in regulation. This would enable the regulator to have powers to ensure every English university and college registered with them are taking steps to protect students from these issues and take action where incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct occur.
The proposals include requiring universities to produce a single document to clearly explain how they will do this and communicating reporting methods and support for students. Another proposal also asks for views on whether universities and colleges should keep a register of staff-student relationships, or ban them entirely, to manage and address any actual or potential conflicts of interest or abuses of power arising from these relationships.
The consultation offers students a way to get their views heard by those who can play a role in meeting their concerns. The action of student groups in recent years demonstrates that this is an important issue that needs to be tackled – now is a chance to speak directly to the Office for Students and those who can play a sector-wide role in addressing this issue. Whether as part of a group or as an individual student, this is a chance to have your voice and views heard.
Student voices and perspectives are pivotal in addressing sexual misconduct, assault, violence, and harassment in higher education. Any solution will need to build upon the lived experience of students and a realistic view of what this issue looks like within the student population.
This is a good opportunity for those whose views are often underrepresented or who have intersectional experience of this issue. With increasingly diverse student populations and experiences, everyone’s voices are needed to ensure the effectiveness and success of any action coming about from this consultation.
The higher education regulator has made equality of opportunity and this consultation a priority in their strategy – this demonstrates recognition of the importance of this issue why it is time to have your voice heard.
How to respond to the consultation: share your views at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/StudentSafety