Online harms are different and the regulator needs to recognise this

Andy Phippen and Emma Bond ask whether OfS' new standards on harassment and sexual misconduct are sufficiently digital in focus.

Andy Phippen is Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at the University of Plymouth and a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk.


Emma Bond is director of research, head of the graduate school and professor of socio-technical research at the University of Suffolk.

With the release of the Office for Students’ final “Statement of Expectations” to prevent and address harassment and sexual misconduct, we finally have some pressure from the regulator regarding how universities respond to these issues on their campuses.

While any such statement from the regulator is to be welcomed, and there is much to appreciate in the Statement of Expectations, we are extremely disappointed to see that online abuse and harassment is merely considered as one of the mediums through which abuse can occur, rather than something worthy of specific consideration:

Our definitions include harassment and sexual misconduct through any medium, including, for example, online.”

We know from our research in 2020 where 130 higher education institutions responded to a freedom of information request exploring policy and practice around safeguarding and online abuse, that universities are ill prepared to tackle online abuse and harms, and few even have effective policy in place to address it. Indeed, we were told by some of our respondents that the online safeguarding of their students was not something they need concern themselves with, in one case “because we do not have anyone under 18 on our campus”.

The research built upon the excellent “Tackling online harassment and promoting online welfare” from Universities UK, which made clear recommendations around how universities might go about tackling online abuse on campuses and how institutions might be more proactive in supporting students.

However, both our research, and the report from UUK, made is clear that the regulator was needed as the stick to our carrot – to make sure universities took online harms seriously because they had to, rather than hoping that would do it because they wanted to.

A year online

We are surprised, given the previous “unusual” year in terms of the delivery of teaching and learning to an almost completely online mode, and with many high-profile stories of online abuse, group chat hate speech and pornographic zoom bombing, that the Office for Students did not take this opportunity to acknowledge the harm resulting from online harassment and abuse among the student body and gave the sector as clear steer on their expectations.

Online abuse is different and cannot merely be dismissed as a medium by which abuse and harassment occurs. As we have seen through this lockdown year, and before, it facilitates far great geographic reach than abuse on campus, and can be maintained through multiple platforms and devices. In essence, there is no escape.

Furthermore, the “pile-on”, when an abuser encourages others to participate in online abuse, is no something that can be easily replicated in an offline setting. We know, through our many years research in this area, that online abuse is often dismissed as “banter” – something that should be tolerated as an expected aspect of engaging with online platforms.

We know that the abused will frequently dismiss what they are going through as something to be expected, while abusers can hide between perceive anonymity or multiple profiles. Pseudosexual imagery, fake images created of those the abuser wishes to harm, are another aspect on online abuse that does not have an offline equivalent.

By considering online abuse to merely be a facet of harassment in its more traditional sense does nothing to raise awareness of these issues in the sector, appreciate the severity of impact or make universities any more mindful to take online abuse on their campuses, whether they be physical or virtual, seriously.

School daze

By way of contrast with the school sector, the statutory safeguarding expectations defined by the Department of Education for all educational establishments in England and Wales “Keeping Children Safe in Education” – specifically differentiates “online safety” in schools, and makes clear expectations on policy, technical intervention and education in the setting.

We have mentioned the lack of knowledge around online abuse and harassment by the student body, and have gone to great lengths in the past to criticise lazy assumptions of the “digital native” arriving at university equipped with the knowledge and resilience to tackle all of the potential online harms that might beset them in early adulthood.

It is therefore also disappointing to see that the Statement of Expectations makes no mention of the use of education to develop knowledge around acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, merely a general statement that institutions should “train” students to be awareness of harassment and misconduct and know how to report them.

With a dearth of effective relationships and sex education in schools, students do not need “awareness training” – they need education embedded into their studies to appreciate how these issues affect their lives now, and in the future.

At all life stages, whether school, university or the workplace, there seems to be a view that “someone else” should provide the necessary knowledge and understanding to be able to recognise abuse and how to respond to it. This is not something that can be addressed with an optional online training video and a multiple-choice quiz.

Whether this statement of expectations causes any changes in practice in the sector remains to be seen, and it is something with which we will undoubtedly be playing close attention. However, we are confident that without a stronger steer from the regulator, online abuse will remain brushed under the carpets and students who become victims will have little chance of clear, consistent support across the sector.

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