Tackling harassment, hate and sexual misconduct on campus

Clare Isham discusses the impact of a major Office for Students (OfS) student safeguarding programme.

Four students making notes

This summer marks the end of the OfS’s student safeguarding catalyst fund programme. The three year programme saw a £4.7 million investment in 119 projects led by universities and colleges across England.

The aim of the programme was to address sexual harassment, hate crime (including religious-based hate crime) and online harassment affecting students. The projects covered a wide range of activity, including training, awareness raising campaigns, digital innovation, and new approaches to preventing and reporting harassment and hate crime. Many involved partnership working – including with the NHS, police and rape crisis centres – as well as student and staff involvement to deliver long-term sustainable approaches.

As the suite of independent evaluation reports made clear, the programme has had a positive impact: encouraging innovation across universities and colleges and helping to develop a repository of learning and resources for use by the sector.

More still to do

Today we are publishing the final evaluation report for round three of the programme, covering 11 projects designed to address religious-based hate crime. The report, by Advance HE, focuses on identifying recommended practice, knowledge gaps, and risks. Across Advance HE’s evaluation reports it has been found that:  

  • the programme has stimulated a wide range of activities across a significant number of higher education providers
  • tolerance for sexual misconduct has decreased within the higher education sector in recent years through awareness raising, and reporting of incidents by students is now increasing. Students have an increased confidence that their provider will respond to their reports and disclosures
  • there is room for improvement, for example: universities’ understanding and prioritisation of hate crime and online harassment seems to be lower compared with levels of understanding and action to address sexual misconduct.

Advance HE set out a series of recommendations to help universities and colleges as they continue to address issues of hate crime, harassment and sexual misconduct. These include encouraging universities and colleges to:

  • set expectations at the most senior level, build awareness throughout their organisation, and systematically monitor and respond to risks. This includes new and current students being kept well-informed about behavioural expectations and what they can do to report concerns
  • have policies and processes for students to report and disclose incidents, and a fair, clear and accessible approach to responding to reports and disclosures. Universities and colleges should ensure that students involved in an investigatory process have access to appropriate and effective support.

Background to the programme

The safeguarding catalyst programme followed on from Universities UK’s (UUK's) influential 2016 Changing the Culture report, which highlighted issues of harassment, hate crime and sexual misconduct affecting university students. Follow-up reports from UUK showed some progress in addressing these issues but they also identified the need for further work. There is a significant body of evidence pointing to a considerable and widespread issue of harassment, hate and sexual misconduct in the higher education sector. For example, last year the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry into racial harassment in higher education found that just under a quarter of students from an ethnic minority background said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course. A 2018 National Union of Students (NUS) survey of students into staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education found that one in 10 respondents had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from staff.

The impact of these behaviours can be devastating. They can also have a serious detrimental effect on a student’s attainment, continuation and ability to succeed. More work is needed to better understand the many factors which impact a student’s higher education outcomes, including considering how harassment, hate crime and sexual misconduct can impact on a student’s ability to succeed. There are striking gaps in outcomes for different student groups. For example, our access and participation dataset shows that the attainment gap between black and white students in 2018-19 was 22.1 percentage points. In addition, recent research from Advance HE has found that while overall, 76.3 per cent of students received a first or 2:1 degree, only 64.9 per cent of Muslim students received a first or 2:1.

The safeguarding catalyst programme has added to the growing body of work in this area and the outputs are a useful resource to support the sector’s response to addressing these issues in the coming years. But we are still at the early stages and there is a long way to go to ensure that all students are able to study in a safe and inclusive higher education environment.

Resources and effective practice

An important aspect of the programme was to support learning, exchange and dissemination of effective practice in safeguarding students for the benefit of the whole sector.

We have previously published on our website various resources from the projects. These have today been updated with new resources from the religious-based hate crime projects. They include:

  • a self-review tool for online safeguarding (University of Suffolk)
  • guidance for staff on taking disclosures of sexual violence (Keele University)
  • digital training modules to support better understanding and responses to hate and extremism (University of Leicester)
  • guidance for higher education providers on tackling religion and belief related harassment and hate incidents (Coventry University).

The impact of the pandemic

Students entering and returning to higher education this autumn will face considerable challenges because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Many will have had breaks in their education, and new entrants may have experienced confusion and uncertainty around the admissions process.

During lockdown, there have been worrying reports of an increase in online harassment and domestic abuse. Now, more than ever, colleges and universities need to be putting in place measures to protect their students from harm: identifying those who may be most at risk, providing support where needed, and ensuring that fair, robust reporting systems are in place.

Read the independent evaluation reports See the project resources

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Published 27 August 2020

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