How to address the sexual and racial misconduct crisis out of the drama

A spate of harassment and sexual misconduct cases in Drama schools should concern the whole of the higher education sector, argues Jim Dickinson.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Ever since the emergence of the #MeToo movement arising from abuse in Hollywood, I’ve noted various sector big names asking aloud when UK higher education might have its “#MeToo moment”.

It’s odd because plenty of the characteristics of certain courses, clubs and subcultures in your average university are strikingly similar to that of the entertainment industry – to the extent that even if some were keen to ignore 2010’s “Hidden Marks”, we probably ought to have at least regarded October 2017 as the “moment”.

But it’s also important to remember that parts of higher education are deeply involved in training the future stars of the entertainment industry. There’s a clutch of well-regarded Drama schools within universities, plenty of providers in franchise arrangements, and some completely separate schools – only some of which are overseen by the Office for Students because not all of them are involved in provision that triggers registration.

Momentous

If we haven’t recognised a “moment” so far, we probably should now. Helen Raw from the British Actors Network says she’s received more than 300 testimonies from actors who have been bullied, assaulted or sexually harassed at drama school and has shown some of her findings to the Telegraph.

Its report highlights allegations at the Guildford School of Acting (a part of the University of Surrey), the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA), the East 15 drama school (part of Essex University) and the Poor School in London – and comes off the back of recent well-publicised cases at the London School of Dramatic Art (the Noel Clarke case) and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

When the general secretary for Equity, the trade union for performers, says that drama school leaders need to “step up” to make sure the industry is safe for young actors just starting out in their careers, we should take notice:

The culture and power structure in drama schools set the tone for the industry students enter. Unless those with power – bosses, producers, and institutions – step up to meet their legal and moral obligations for a safe industry, allegations such as these will keep coming. Drama schools must be making sure their students know their rights and have confidence that they will be heard.”

We should also notice when Irvine Iqbal, a member of Equity’s race equality committee argues that Drama Schools need independent oversight:

Drama schools have a duty to protect their students. We need an independent regulation body (maybe a wing of Equity) with regulatory powers to create a framework to protect the future generation of our industry”.

And when Helen Raw says that leaving things to individual providers is a problem, we should also act:

What we actually need is a regulatory body. What [industry bodies] are setting up is all well and good, but they’re all separate and individual and they’re all saying we don’t have any way to sanction any of this behaviour or do anything about it”.

Acting appropriately

I was thinking about this a few weeks back when the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (Alra) published a race equality audit from an independent panel. There’s a lot in there that will be familiar to many who’ve worked on race and racism in universities – but I thought that it was oddly inadequate when it came to handling complaints and allegations.

Some of it is straightforward – students saying they are “uninformed and unclear” about the complaints processes and failures to communicate “key information on procedures and outcomes in a timely and consistent manner” should be fixable at a stroke.

But when you read that cases had historically not been investigated in a consistent way, you find a lack of clarity and knowledge about measures and protocols, and you discover a failure to document findings and outcomes from the investigations, you start to see trouble.

The point is that even what are posited as base minimums for providers to follow in the Office for Students statement of expectations for preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct are likely to be beyond the capability and resource available to a single small or specialist provider.

And this isn’t just about whether a provider can or will – it’s also about trust. One of the reasons why both Oxford and Cambridge have inched towards central reporting of harassment and sexual misconduct allegations is that students (reasonably) wouldn’t necessarily trust reporting something within a college’s closed and collegiate community – something highlighted vividly in the Trinity Hall case covered by Tortoise last year.

The point here is that in closed, tight-knit (and often highly ambitious) communities, extra effort has to be made to ensure that victims can identify abuse and ensure they have the confidence to raise it in a way that will mean they are protected and not subject to repercussions. And that almost certainly means searching for proper complaints independence – not something even recommended for complaints handling in that ALRA race equality audit despite that provider’s size.

And this isn’t just about drama schools. In this study a medical school population survey was carried out, where students were asked whether they had experienced, witnessed or reported discrimination or harassment and were given space for free-text comments.

  • The majority of participants had experienced discrimination or harassment themselves or had witnessed incidents involving others.
  • The most common experiences were based on joking that included “banter” about stereotyped assumptions, people’s motivations and identities.
  • Female students had 2.6 times greater odds of experiencing any type of discrimination or harassment than male students.
  • Female students described uncomfortable touching and the invasion of personal space by staff.
  • Students in the clinical years had 3.6 times greater odds of such experiences than did preclinical students.
  • BaME, religious and non-heterosexual groups and students with disabilities were more likely to experience or witness individual types of discrimination or harassment.
  • Crucially, non-reporting was the norm, with only seven students having reported an incident. Students cited several barriers to reporting, including

And why was that?

  • An impersonal procedure and the perception of harassment as “normal”;
  • Fears of victimisation and personal repercussions on their progress assessments, career and education;
  • Students felt uncomfortable talking to medical school faculty staff about such issues and preferred to talk to close colleagues and friends.

Changing the culture

There are really important questions here for professions and industries that are all wrestling with cultures that have historically protected and hidden abusers. And it should go without saying that in large, multi-disciplinary universities, a decent risk assessment in this space should identify the pockets of provision most likely to resemble and interact with these factors and take targetted action to ensure students’ safety. You know what I mean – PGR students, elite sports clubs, medical schools and so on.

Questions on prevalence, safety and complaints confidence should appear in the NSS so that we know which courses or providers where there might be a problem, and so OfS (which bangs on about being risk-based) can take targetted action. And it would only do good if a national amnesty was arranged in the higher education sector where victims could come forward so we can learn the lessons from their cases.

And when it comes to smaller providers, I’m sorry, but I doubt it will ever be the case that they have the money, expertise or independence to handle the work necessary to create the kinds of environments we ought to be able to guarantee to everyone in higher education. And that means those providers must collaborate to generate the independent work required, and OfS should be regulating all of them to make sure that they do.

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