Setting standards on student security and wellbeing

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The statistics on the problem of sexual harassment and assault in and around universities have become as familiar as they are depressing.

In 2010, the NUS ‘Hidden Marks’ report found that 68% of female students had experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment. A 2016 DrinkAware poll found that 54% of female students and 15% of male students had been sexually harassed on a night out. A Telegraph survey found that one in three female students had been sexually assaulted or abused on campus. A Guardian campaign has gathered over 100 accounts of staff-to-student sexual harassment, describing this as “a hidden pattern” of abuse. The Guardian renewed its focus earlier this year with pieces on the “epidemic” of staff-to-student sexual harassment and the problems facing students who report it, including inconsistent and unclear investigative methods.

These stories help to maintain our awareness of this issue and heap pressure on universities to change it. But there is little discussion of the positive ways in which universities are responding to the challenge.

In 2014, a team at the University of Salford began investigating how universities could adopt a better approach to student safety, security and wellbeing. This was in response to a number of concerns beyond the emerging data on sexual assault listed above. NUS’s ‘No Place for Hate’ survey found that students faced verbal abuse and threatening behaviour due to their sexual orientation (31%), race (18%), and transgender status (55%). ONS statistics identified that full-time students were at a greater risk of crime victimisation than the general adult population. There is also the growing awareness of international students’ specific safety concerns, and the well-documented perception that there is a student mental health crisis.

To better understand these issues, the Salford team surveyed nearly 900 students, and organised focus groups with university security managers, police higher education liaison officers and students’ union sabbatical officers. We also conducted a comprehensive review of current university student safety and wellbeing initiatives, as well as guidance material such as Universities UK’s ‘Changing the Culture’ report.

Introducing ProtectED

This research informed the development of ProtectED; a not-for-profit membership organisation and accreditation scheme to reliably assess how universities ensure student safety, security and wellbeing, and to significantly improve universities’ work in this area.

The ProtectED Code of Practice was published in February 2017, following consultation with an advisory board of sector experts. It is illustrated with case studies that highlight the good work being done at some institutions, to provide inspiration to others. The confidential accreditation process requires member universities to appraise their policies, services, processes and procedures against the Code of Practice. A university’s achievement of ProtectED accreditation is assessed by a peer review panel and follow-up verification visit.

Accredited universities must have formal, written policies that deal with sexual assault, bullying and harassment, equality and diversity, and cyberbullying. This includes: raising awareness; staff and student training; clear reporting and recording procedures; promoting to students and staff a zero-tolerance approach; and procedures for providing and publicising support services. Accredited universities must run student social media workshops to raise awareness of online harassment and victim support. NUS has a Cyberbullying Briefing to assist universities and students’ unions.

Developing better practice

The ‘Black Eyes & Cottage Pies’ theatre production, recently performed at the University of Salford, is a good example of a creative initiative in this area championed by ProtectED. This initiative communicates zero-tolerance by dramatising issues around sexual consent and abusive relationships, and encouraging peer support. The performance ends with an audience discussion and sign-posting to appropriate support, as necessary. Many universities run sexual consent classes for undergraduate students but some, such as the University of York, run classes also aimed at postgraduates, with a gender-neutral focus to ensure relevance to all groups.

Staff and student training is crucial to changing a culture at universities where incidents may be covered up and victims left unsupported. SOAS has developed campus-wide guidance for dealing with gender-based violence, including training for all new staff. UCL offers active bystander training to help students challenge sexual harassment and encourage peer-to-peer support.

ProtectED requires universities to train specialist staff to whom students can report incidents, who can advise on preserving evidence and can provide ongoing support, regardless of police involvement. The University of Manchester funds a team of harassment advisors, two of whom specialise in sexual harassment cases. Universities also need to offer accessible reporting options. For example, Manchester has an anonymous, online ‘report and support’ tool. Other online reporting and documenting systems, such as Callisto, allow students to anonymously create a time-stamped incident record with no obligation to escalate matters. But if another individual names the same perpetrator, they will be alerted to this and can decide whether to take things further.

Partnership-working is integral to ProtectED, and we require universities to liaise with venues on and off campus can help mitigate ‘hot spot’ situations and locations. The Leeds University Union campaign ‘We’ve Got Your Back’ delivers training to bars and clubs in Leeds, raising awareness of student sexual harassment and assault, and implementing procedures at those venues to help potential victims. We seek student feedback via campus audits to identify ‘unsafe’ areas, with a view to informing improvements, and when assessing support services and initiatives, to ensure they are adequately resourced, effective and user-friendly.

ProtectED encourages the development of better relationships between university internal services, students’ unions, external organisations (e.g. NHS, police, charities etc.), and other universities. This group can share information, pool knowledge and resources, and gain access to vital intelligence and support. ProtectED seeks to establish a mutually-supportive network of accredited higher education institutions that share good practice and target their resources effectively to help prevent student sexual harassment and assault, and to support victims of it.

Importantly, members also share data on these incidents with ProtectED. This data is anonymised and aggregated to inform ProtectED research into the scale of the problem, how institutions are responding, and ‘what works’. We believe that developing a reliable evidence base is vital. Our ProtectED focus groups have even found anecdotal evidence of some universities avoiding recording incidents to minimise reputation damage. ProtectED will enable the sector to address this problem.  

ProtectED’s approach to student harassment and sexual assault is further supported by, and overlaps with, other challenges addressed by the Code of Practice. These include: institutional safety and security; student wellbeing and mental health; international students’ safety; and the student night out.

At present, approaches to student safety, security and wellbeing are fragmented with standards varying greatly across the sector, causing concern for students and their families and leading to a regular churn of bad news stories. ProtectED does not focus only on the campus, but considers the whole student experience in towns and cities, providing an effective means of putting existing best practice guidance into practice. But ProtectED is only just beginning. We are continuing to evolve as a clearer picture emerges of the challenges facing 21st century university students.

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