Discussion on sexual misconduct needs to pivot online too

A number of universities including Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge have announced they will be moving lectures online when the new academic year starts in September.

Across the country, and indeed the world, millions of students await further news of whether they will be able to return to campus, with housing contracts and placement years hanging in the balance.

The shift to online teaching in March was an abrupt one, which left many universities scrabbling to adapt teaching. Tools such as Zoom, Blackboard and lecture recordings have been able to replace face-to-face contact to an extent, but some students have struggled from a lack of support with the shift.

But there is another risk in increased teaching and learning online – a potential rise in staff-to-student sexual misconduct.

Blurring the boundaries

Although we are scattered across the country and the world, miles away from our colleagues, there is an odd intimacy to working from home.

Through video calls we see inside each other’s homes, see the books and pictures in the background. Whether because of space, childcare or connectivity issues, many teachers and students are working from their bedrooms. The concept of public and private has all but disappeared.

Students are spread across different time zones, necessitating the need for calls and video chats at strange hours of the day and removing the clear definitions of nine-to-five. Many staff and students have been dressing more informally, again blurring the lines between professional and unprofessional.

The pandemic meant that many staff were actively encouraged to check in on their students, to ask after their personal circumstances and look out for their mental health. The vast majority of staff have good intentions. Tiffany Page, co-founder of organising the 1752 Group, Page is quick to say, argues that all of this has likely blurred many boundaries that before were more clear:

Those staff members who were genuinely doing that were not crossing boundaries in a bad way… But what it does do is create forms of intimacy that you might have to walk back later.”

This is about medium as much as it is about message. In some cases, universities have not been clear about what technological platforms are best for communications. When before there were clear dividing lines, between appropriate channels of communication such as email, and inappropriate, such as social media, video chat and text. Now those lines are far less clear.

Page says it is vital universities create clear guidelines for staff on how to maintain professional boundaries through online learning, for the protection of students, but also for the protection of staff:

I’d hate for staff members who are genuinely caring for the students to be accused of or to be seen as grooming their students… Previously that line was very clear…but with a global pandemic, that line dissolves.”

A pre-existing issue

Of course, staff-student sexual harassment was already an issue, well before Covid-19. There aren’t clear statistics but a Guardian FOI request in 2017 found that students made at least 169 allegations of sexual misconduct against staff between September 2011 and May 2017.

The investigation found that 37 staff left their university or changed jobs following allegations that they had sexually harassed students. One-third of universities have no policy on student-staff relationships.

And those which do have policies, still may not be equipped to deal with misconduct related to online learning. Page said that while many universities do have a line in their policies that applies them to online misconduct, these were most likely not written with the full extent of online teaching in mind. Rachel Watters, Women’s Officer for the NUS echoed this sentiment:

The university’s policies on sexual harassment are not necessarily equipped to deal with online harassment, and we’re experiencing a sudden shift to mass online learning on new platforms… And of course, in a lot of cases, this is the first time that institutions are using them, the first time that students are using them.”

A 2018 NUS report found that fewer than one in ten respondents (9.6%) who experienced staff sexual misconduct reported it to their university, and Watters is concerned that this number may drop even lower during online teaching. She said that, in the past, students have raised concerns that online harassment isn’t taken as seriously as in-person harassment. If the majority of teaching is online, students may feel it isn’t worth reporting, as nothing will be done:

I think in some circumstances there was a distinction between harassment that takes place in person and on campus being something that the university can deal with, and things that take place online not necessarily something that they can deal with, or not serious enough to provoke normal disciplinary procedures… Any harassment policy should be inclusive of online harassment. It’s no less serious, it’s no less impactful on the people who experience it, and often it can be more insidious because the person receiving that kind of harassment is receiving it in their own home.”

What to do – now

The OfS consultation of sexual misconduct, due to be released early this year, has been paused indefinitely. Rather than letting the uncertainty in higher education delay this important work, it seems as though this could be an opportunity to make sure the policies, procedures and reporting mechanisms are comprehensive, clear and airtight.

Universities need to be ready to anticipate any issues that may arise out of online learning, consulting with staff representatives and Students’ Unions to create clear guidelines, so that staff can confidently teach online while understanding boundaries.

And, although the emphasis should be on staff, Page says universities also have a duty to be clear with students, so that they can recognise inappropriate behaviour and know how to report it if needed.

Staff-student sexual harassment has long gone undiscussed, and if universities aren’t prepared, online learning could push it even further underground. Rather than waiting for the worst to happen, universities have the opportunity to be proactive, and use this moment as an opportunity to address the issue for good.

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