Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The other day one of those memes was going around asking participants to share what they looked like ten years ago.

Doomscrolling through my archived camera roll reminded me of what the student experience looked like ten years ago, and what SUs were talking about. At the time, NUS was preparing to launch the second edition of a report called “Hidden Marks” – a study of women students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault.

More than a third of respondents reported that they felt unsafe when visiting their university or college buildings in the evening. Women students reported experiences of a range of unwanted behaviour during their time as a student – ranging from “everyday” verbal and non-verbal harassment, to serious episodes of stalking, physical and sexual assault.

One in seven respondents had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student. Over two thirds had experienced some kind of verbal or non-verbaln harassment in and around their institution. That kind of behaviour – which included groping, flashing and unwanted sexual comments – had become almost “everyday” for some women students.

More than one in ten reported being subject to stalking. And almost one in five had experienced unwanted kissing, touching or molesting during their time as a student – the majority of which had taken place in public.

But does anything ever change?

Sharing stories

The run up to the vigil for Sarah Everard was characterised by another Twitter trend – of women, including students, academics, student leaders and professional services staff – sharing countless recent experiences of harassment, abuse and assault including in the context of the university.

Many of those stories can be found on national sites like Everyone’s Invited or its local campus derivatives. A head of steam gathers around particular universities or particular cases – like the dozens of allegations of sexual assault or rape on campus at St Andrews last July, or the allegations surrounding staff student misconduct at Oxford last February, or the Warwick WhatsApp group chat case the year previously.

Just as in the Everard case, calls for attitudinal and cultural change, an end to victim blaming and for men to take action are accompanied by calls for deep and systemic change within our institutions.

Every time, leaders at every level promise to deepen the work and to broaden the ambition and to quicken the pace and to search the soul and to eradicate the perps and to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach and to show visible senior leadership and to implement a cross-institutional approach.

But does anything ever change?

Slow progress

The publication of “Hidden Marks” – first in 2010 and then its revision in 2011 – was not the first attempt by student activists to highlight the problem of sexual misconduct on UK campuses – but it was an important moment.

The sense of shock amongst the naive and the sense of validation amongst those who’d experienced it was palpable at the time, and has been repeated with every single survey and project highlighting the issues that has followed it since.

Nevertheless, progress was slow. It took the government a full five years to get around to even properly acknowledging the issue, with then Business Secretary Sajid Javid calling on Universities UK to take action in September 2015:

Nobody should be put off going to University because of fears about their safety. If my children choose that path, I would expect my daughter to be as safe as my son on any campus in this country. This taskforce will ensure that universities have a plan to stamp out violence against women and provide a safe environment for all their students. We do not tolerate this behaviour in any part of society and I’m not prepared to let it take place on university campuses unchecked.

The usual round of activity ensued – taskforces, reports, funded projects and guidance – and it’s not that nothing changed. Students’ unions in particular did some extraordinarily brave work challenging culture and trying to improve reporting systems, only to be condemned as bringing their institution into disrepute, or worse, as PC snowflakes by the same people calling them “woke” today:

Campus ‘rape culture’ is the myth that just won’t die…The world the anti-sex-brigade seeks to conjure up – one where women are victims and men are sexual predators – simply doesn’t exist. This is certainly not the norm on campus.”

Back in 2015 I suggested that students might wonder why their university’s discipline regulations cover things like forgery, drug possession, physical assault of another student or destruction of property despite being criminal, but when it came to sexual assault it was “go to the police, or we won’t listen”.

They might also have wondered why a university would discipline a graffiti artist on the balance of probabilities but would leave a date rapist free to roam unless a “beyond reasonable doubt” test was met by a hostile and ineffective police and courts regime.

And to be fair to Universities UK, it went out on a limb and commissioned legal advice for its members on sweeping away so-called “Zellick guidelines” that accompanied its wider work on culture change, case handling and victim support.

What we don’t know is what actually changed.

Limited and variable

A 2018 progress report found a fifth of the providers had made “very limited” progress in meeting the recommendations and addressing this agenda. A 2019 update found progress to be “variable”. An Advance HE assessment that year of funded projects found that concern remained at senior levels within some providers about the potential for reputational damage (specifically a negative impact on student recruitment) from publicising initiatives to tackle hate crime and harassment.

By February 2019 a survey said that more than half of students were still experiencing unwanted advances and assault from explicit messages to rape, but only a fraction of those affected reported the incidents to their university or the police.

DfE responded by saying that it had asked Universities UK to “establish a sexual violence and harassment taskforce specifically to tackle the issue in higher education”, cheekily implying new action, when on interrogation all it was doing was re-announcing Javid’s work from four years earlier, adding:

…and [we] have tasked the Office for Students to work with universities to implement its recommendations”.

It took months and months – of more reports and additional research and ever more harrowing findings – to get any sign of a move from “best practice” to actual requirements. In September 2019 OfS CEO Nicola Dandridge responded to a shaming BBC File on 4 investigation into how victims were treated when they did raise complaints by saying that OfS would “intervene in serious examples of universities failing to address these issues seriously”, but nobody knew what OfS meant by “addressing the issues seriously” because it had never said – and so no-one trusted the promise to intervene.

It got there in the end.

A January 2020 Office for Students publication found that progress in adopting the recommended approaches was slow and not widespread or consistent across the sector, and that there was a significant level of variation in the response by providers, including by their leadership and governance teams.

It also said that it had not seen evidence that variability was because of principled differences between providers, or that it reflected diverse preferences from students on how these issues are managed:

This suggests [instead] it is likely to be either a lack of clarity over expectation, or a lack of prioritisation.

Proposals for change

A consultation on a new statement of expectations ensued, calling for standards like the provision of easy to understand information for students and staff on how they can report, disclose or seek support if they experience or witness any incident of harassment or sexual misconduct, and an investigatory process that is fair, independent, and free from any reasonable perception of bias in the event of a disclosure.

It also promised access to appropriate support prior to, during, and following any formal investigation, and to use its powers to intervene if there was evidence of a failure of a provider’s complaint handling process to respond to reports of harassment and sexual misconduct.

The proposals weren’t perfect:

  • Despite noting that “there is currently no national dataset detailing the prevalence of or response to harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education”, it wasn’t proposing to collect any data on case handling or prevalence – an odd look for a regulator that draws such deep conclusions about grade inflation. OfS even piloted an NSS question on safety in 2019, and we’ve heard nothing since.
  • The proposals were fairly inadequate on staff-student misconduct, where for some reason it remains that case that outright predatory behaviour within universities is regarded as some kind of human right.
  • A call to explicitly publish policies and results on this stuff for students and parents to see was rejected because “prospective students might not use it”, a bit rich from the body looking after the Teaching Excellence Framework.
  • It’s still the case that student on student sexual misconduct between students at two universities or at franchise or year abroad partners is ignored in procedures and put in the “too hard” box.
  • The issues of community prevalence, reporting confidence, social norming and culturally competent investigation and handling for those that aren’t white and middle class are largely ignored in the myriad reports and recommendations.
  • And there wasn’t much at all in there on online harassment, which looks even more of a bad call in hindsight. Does anyone – including Michael “Gravity Assist” Barber – really think that higher education has moved online and not taken harassment and sexual misconduct with it?

They’re all points I’d have made in the consultation – but that got paused when the pandemic hit and has been closed ever since. OfS got its headlines and raised expectations, but the proposals languish unimplemented. Yet almost everything else that got paused has since restarted.

Maybe that’s not about a principled rejection, or a change in expectations from students on how these issues are managed. It’s likely instead to be either a lack of clarity over expectation, or a lack of prioritisation.

Political priorities

The last time ministers sounded worried was when in 2019 Gavin Williamson quietly asked OfS to ensure that students would not experience unacceptable behaviour such as harassment during their time at university. But ever since, his government’s “war on woke” has taken priority.

Bystander training for students at Sheffield was condemned last year as a “student stasi spying on students” by the ultra-libertarians at Spiked! and Civitas, and went on to become something to be banned in DfE’s free speech proposals last month. Last summer ministers urged universities in financial trouble because of the lockdown to defund SUs that support the very students that have led on this work – labelling them “niche activists”, as if harassment and sexual misconduct is something that only concerns an “extreme woke minority” rather than us all.

Even in the middle of the furore over the Everard case, ministers have been unable to resist treating the problem as something that’s individual and exceptional rather than systemic. When Michelle Donelan was asked on Times Radio if there should be more education of young men on the issues, her reply was to question the role of education, to #notallmen the issue by saying that “we shouldn’t get into a blame game… most men are not perpetrators and are not predators”, and to reassure listeners that the government was well on its way to getting 20,000 more police officers onto the streets – not something that would necessarily have made Saturday’s vigil attendees or women in general feel any safer.

At a local level, providers will do what providers always do – wait for OfS to publish before changing complex policies and regulations. It ought to be long past the time when students have been able to choose between providers that take this stuff seriously and those that choose not to, yet here we are, in March 2021, still giving students the choice in the market between academic excellence and their own safety – all while the sector pats itself on the back over the rapidity of its move online.

The annual cycle of business within universities means that there’s now days left before it’s too late to see real change in place before September. Last month, OfS said it would “fast-track” the publication of its “statement of expectations” this spring. It can’t come fast enough.

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