Sexual harassment by staff is not being tackled with sufficient urgency

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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:

  • Investigations need to be formal in terms of how they are organised, carried out and reported on;
  • Investigations into allegations need to be proportionate with the alleged offence (so the more serious the allegation, the more evidence should be gathered, more witnesses called and paths of inquiry followed to their logical end);
  • There should never be an onus on the ‘victim’ to be accommodating in terms of reaching a settlement (for the sake of the reputation of their institution or the respect of the individuals involved). This only reinforces the natural power relationship, the strength of the institution and individual staff over students;
  • Any allegation needs to be treated seriously in the first instance – there should, for example, be an onus on the respondent to engage in the process, and not have the option to refuse any participation;
  • Investigations should never be run by an academic, even if they have no association with the member of staff involved – there are always going to be loyalties and sympathies that cloud decision-making;
  • Rather than just assuming a personal tutor should be involved, extra care is needed when considering whether an investigation should be handled by a man or woman to encourage openness;
  • They need to be undertaken as quickly as possible in the interests of both sides. Investigations run with internal resources tend to be slow, relying on the availability of senior academic staff, which can prolong anxieties and act as a barrier to victims (not wanting to extend the experience or after a time, even participate);
  • Training in fair decision-making can be needed among panel members. A panel may well include HR and a student representative, but the assumed power will usually lie with the academic when there needs to be equality in terms of how views and perspectives are treated;
  • There can be a presumption that a panel will be fair-minded, particularly those that involve academics. Academic culture and its intellectual level can be a problem. Academics are typically used to having high levels of control over their world, their area of expertise and research, over lectures and tutorials, and can be wary of any interference. It can be a world of power and privacy;
  • If an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment is found guilty, it’s important that an institution can ensure that sanctions are consistent – if one staff member is only given a rap over the knuckles while another at a different university is dismissed from their post for a similar offence, then it only weakens the sector’s position and creates confusion.

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. 

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