Gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual misconduct remain pressing issues within higher education institutions (HEIs).
Recent surveys show that 30 – 60 per cent of students have experienced sexual violence since enrolling – with at least 20 per cent of students experiencing sexual violence in the last year. And there are even higher numbers experiencing sexual harassment.
Gathering and using data to prevent GBV in universities is paramount in creating safer and more inclusive academic environments. The power of data lies in its ability to shine a light on the prevalence and nature of the issue, allowing institutions to develop evidence-based policies, interventions, and support mechanisms.
Although most HEIs now offer some form of anonymous reporting tool, many institutional leaders still tell me they are nervous about using them. This is usually because they are concerned that something serious will be reported, and the institution won’t be able to investigate it or support the individual properly.
However, urgent safeguarding issues do not usually tend to come through anonymous reporting. Not everyone who experiences GBV will be looking for support from within their institution, and when people do report anonymously and then need support, they have options. Allowing people to choose the support pathway that feels right to them follows the empowerment model that victims/survivors should be encouraged to make choices for themselves, which is proven to help people better recover from trauma. This is why our Report + Support tool provides external – and internal – support pathways for people who wish to choose them.
If an institution doesn’t have an anonymous reporting option, those who do not want to report openly are unlikely to disclose their experience of GVB by other means. If you don’t hear about the problem at all, you can’t address it. Low reporting rates do not mean you have low rates of GBV; it means that students aren’t reporting what is happening to them.
Anonymous reporting helps provide safer, more reassuring ways for people to speak up, and in time, this can increase institutions’ reporting rates overall, including reporting with contact details.
Plus, the ability to monitor trends and take targeted preventative action from anonymous reporting data should not be underestimated. People report anonymously because they often don’t feel able to report in other ways. Without having such a tool in place, their experiences would remain hidden.
By collecting anonymous data, universities can encourage survivors to come forward without fear of identification, ensuring their voices are heard while their privacy is respected. Understanding the experiences of reporting parties through inclusive data collection enables institutions to tailor their responses, foster trust, and provide survivor-centric support.
Anonymous report to action response
Common interventions in response to anonymous reporting data include providing training to target specific issues or populations and campaigning around problem issues. But across our partner institutions, we see many examples of more innovative approaches, too.
We know of one university which leveraged anonymous reports to address a more day-to-day situation. Facing a challenge with anonymous reports from international students experiencing racial abuse on campus, the university pieced together vital details from the anonymous reports, such as locations and times. With the help of enhanced security measures in specific locations, they identified the perpetrators as a group of individuals not affiliated with the university and were able to notify the police. So anonymous reports can lead to effective, if unconventional, responses that may not align with typical investigations under institutional regulations. The university was able to act and then share this action with its student body so they felt safer on campus.
At Culture Shift, we encourage the use of free text boxes in all reporting routes. These allow reporting parties to write about what has happened in their own words, giving survivors a voice and providing additional contextual information – which can be invaluable when taking action.
Open text boxes also help identify new trends in behaviours that aren’t already known. For example, spiking previously wasn’t a reporting category on most of our partner institutions’ sites. However, after an increase in the number of spiking incidents reported in open text boxes, it was added as a category, as well as relevant support articles.
If a person responsible for harassment or violence is named in an anonymous report, staff need to assess whether or not to have a direct conversation with that person. Some of our partners always aim to contact a named individual (unless this would put someone at risk of further harm). Others may redact names if they don’t have enough information to warrant further action. Another approach is to wait and see if there is a pattern of someone being named and then speak to that person or take disciplinary action. This is important because serial perpetration is common in GBV. Report + Support has an optional name-matching feature which scans free text comments and helps our partners identify if someone has been reported on multiple occasions. Guidance from Universities UK also suggests that it’s acceptable to inform reporting parties that similar reports have been made in some circumstances.
All disciplinary action has to follow the principles of natural justice. However, a conversation with someone named as responsible for harassment or violence in a report, which explores their experience of the situation, carried out by someone with appropriate expertise, can effectively address these behaviours. This is a good way for HEIs to uphold their claims that such behaviours will not be tolerated.
When there isn’t a specific complainant to bring a grievance, but the data highlights that GBV is occurring, many people think an institution cannot act. But environmental investigations – or audits, as they are sometimes called – can be used to understand the extent of the issue.
These investigations/audits are a proactive approach. Departments, research groups, or teams usually work with HR or an external organisation to appoint someone to meet with members of staff and students and hear their experiences. Interviews are generally held with a wide range of people to give a more detailed context for trends identified through anonymous reports.
Environmental investigations are innovative in two ways:
- They don’t require an individual complainant to raise a grievance to uncover what is leading to cultural or behavioural problems.
- They signify to people that reports made through Report + Support are influential enough for institutions to seek out further conversations and evidence to make informed interventions.
In practice, environmental investigations lead to a more detailed understanding of the extent of the problems. They may help identify perpetrators whose behaviour can be directly addressed and provide a more comprehensive understanding of what solutions a department or school can put in place to prevent further unacceptable behaviours from occurring.
Any data gained from Report + Support or other sources can help institutions implement appropriate interventions to limit recurrence and prevent behaviours from happening in the first place. The data can also inform changes to policies and processes (as a general rule, these should be reviewed every 3 to 5 years – more often if possible)
And such interventions can also be more targeted. I often hear that if someone doesn’t want to go down the route of a formal grievance or disciplinary action, there isn’t anything institutions can do about a report. This simply isn’t true. There are lots of ways behaviours can be addressed early and proactively. For example, if an academic overhears a conversation about sexually inappropriate comments being directed at women students in a class WhatsApp, they don’t have to wait for someone to report this to act on it. This knowledge can be followed up with a course representative to ask if they know about the issue. If they confirm it is happening, staff can work with the course rep to consider possible interventions to stop the behaviour.
Another way to look at it is that an individual doesn’t need to be held accountable or have an upheld disciplinary case for action to be taken. These kinds of interventions need to be recorded to capture a full picture – i.e. what issues are occurring and how they are being dealt with. This can be a challenge in large, complex organisations, but it is possible by having a single location where you record the information, such as Report + Support.
Of course, there are complex and ongoing debates around GDPR in this space, which we at Culture Shift have actively participated in. This is a developing area, but as Universities UK outlined in their guidance last year, “data protection legislation should be considered in the context of the wider regulatory framework”.
So, in addressing GBV in HE, data serves as a powerful tool, illuminating the prevalence and nature of GBV enabling evidence-based policies and tailored support. Innovative approaches like environmental investigations offer deeper insights, while free text boxes empower survivors to share their experiences in their own words. Data-driven approaches and comprehensive analysis empower universities to identify patterns, address systemic challenges, and implement targeted prevention strategies to revolutionise efforts to combat GBV on campuses.