Richard Peachey is a Dispute Resolution Consultant at CMP Resolutions.
An investigation by The Guardian last month used the term “epidemic” to describe the number of allegations of sexual harassment being made by students against staff in universities.
It’s strong language, but reasonable given the university environment: large concentrations of young adults exploring their new freedoms, forming all varieties of relationships with older, confident and often admired staff. It’s a mire of power, experiment, opportunity and vulnerability.
As per another phrase used in The Guardian’s report, the numbers of cases obtained via its Freedom of Information request – 169 allegations over the past five years – might well just be the “tip of the iceberg”. And how would the sector deal with the kind of trend being faced by the Football Association for opening up historic cases of sexual harassment?
Last year’s taskforce led by Universities UK examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students highlighted how good practice is patchy and not always joined up, and was used as the basis for new guidelines on handling misconduct by students. While valuable in drawing attention to general issues, the broad brush approach – grouping together all forms of harassment and sticking to principles everyone would necessarily agree with – skirts over how higher education should be handling the more difficult and potentially damaging cases involving its own staff. Since the taskforce report and new guidelines were released, UUK has outlined how further work will be taken forward on these more difficult cases.
Yet given the knowledge of the risks involved and the new climate of awareness around sexual abuse, the response from universities has been underwhelming. The fact remains that when it comes to complaints against staff, most universities have been found to be using informal investigations – headed up by an academic. However good the intentions, these can appear to be used to reach a convenient resolution, involving settlements and non-disclosure agreements.
As a starting point, higher education institutions need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just, do they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward. The whole sector needs to get on top of the issue as quickly as possible, with agreement across the sector on a clear, consistent policy on responding to sexual harassment cases – that there’s never a justification for secrecy or fudge. Students have to be able to trust in the professionalism and integrity of their institution.
There are basic principles that need to underpin the response and demonstrate a house that’s in order:
Of course there is a wider issue of fixing campus culture, and more robust processes won’t simply untangle the potential for unwise and irresponsible behaviours. And no-one would want to impose a puritanical regime that made lives and experiences less human.
Yet universities should also think in terms of their wider pastoral responsibilities to their students. Universities take pride that they are not just delivering learning, but creating an experience and an environment where people grow as individuals, able to take responsibility, make decent decisions about themselves and others, and learn about the importance of equality and respect for diversity. Universities should be breeding a sense of dignity.
It’s true there are a whole raft of initiatives run by universities on awareness of sexual issues including harassment – but these are voluntary, mostly ignored and seen as po-faced or irrelevant by students. Institutions need to think about what’s going to have the greatest impact – whether that’s more mandatory sessions, more content in curricula on equality and diversity, or just making sure that work is seen to be coming more formally from the institution itself rather than solely through the Student’s Union.
Excellent work is being done around the role of bystanders – the kinds of people who see problems of harassment in the course of their day-to-day, but don’t know what to do or say, like bar staff or employees in canteens and cafes. More awareness among stakeholders on campus, including ‘academic bystanders’, will be another step forward in being clear about the line between what’s appropriate, and what’s abuse.
This article was amended at 5.45pm on April 7th to include a link to Nicola Dandridge’s blog for UUK on tacking staff-to-student sexual harassment.