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Should students and staff trust a university’s review of gender-based violence?

An external review praises the intent but criticises the implementation of a strategy on gender-based violence. Jim Dickinson wonders whether it understands power.
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There are “serious weaknesses” in the administration of student misconduct.

The university’s Code of Student Conduct may well provide a “well-structured regime” for responding to complaints of misconduct following substantial revision – but it has been implemented “without proper preparation”.

Separating academic and non-academic misconduct in the rewrite may well have been a sensible move – but an “insufficiently robust” student conduct team is operating with “inadequate resource”.

The university has in place a variety of support arrangements for students and staff – but there are “inconsistencies” in the treatment of cases and in record keeping, and most cases are subject to “serious delays”.

Staff responsible are “doing their best” – but it is a situation that is “unsustainable” and “carries a high level of risk”, where “urgent attention is needed.”

There will be lots of people across the sector that will have experienced a version of this “nice policy, shame about your implementation” conclusion that is at the centre of Morag Ross KC’s independent review of the University of Glasgow’s approach to addressing gender-based violence.

Commissioned in the wake of a BBC Scotland documentary and an Al-Jazeera podcast series, both of which featured victim testimony alleging a series of failings in case handling at the university, Ross’s review is substantial, wide-ranging and in some areas genuinely shocking – albeit ultimately sat inside a set of contemporary consensus-held assumptions about this area that deserve some scrutiny.

The key question is whether the conclusions and recommendations – which overall amount to exhorting the university to implement its new policy properly – will be enough to make the university safer and to give confidence both to those who report gender-based violence on campus, and those who right now, don’t.

This piece does not cover the issues in the report comprehensively – if you are involved or even just interested in this area, it does deserve a full read. What I have tried to do is both identify some of the more salient issues in the review that are likely to be sector-wide, and test some of the underpinning thinking that Ross deploys when developing conclusions.

A zero-tolerance intent

First of all, there’s a very long preamble that does all of the things you might expect it to in terms of context –

  • Gender-based violence in the university is not a new phenomenon;
  • The university is part of wider society and will be influenced by external pressures;
  • Human relationships are complex and, while there are common themes in gender-based violence, people need to be treated as individuals;
  • Zero tolerance as a concept needs to be properly understood;
  • The number of cases reported to the university is low;
  • Good record keeping is important and monitoring is essential; and
  • The availability of information on the university website could be improved.

Beyond this, Ross’s approach is essentially to evaluate the policies or strategies agreed, and then to use interview and documentary evidence to test their implementation and efficacy. So for example, Ross notes that a proposal had been made to create the position of a safeguarding officer in May of last year, who would ensure effective risk assessment and response to reports of sexual violence, as well as enable a more timely response to reports with “sparse but concerning” information. It hadn’t happened – expediting its implementation is one of Ross’s early recommendations.

The section on the implementation of the new Code of Student Conduct paints a picture – of a staff team not having yet developed the capability to convert the new policy into practice. Following a restructuring exercise, Ross found a staff team handling cases “under extreme pressure”, with only temporary admin support, and a consultant whose work was “ill-defined and limited”. Those making the system work “do not have the capacity to do that properly”, reliance had been placed on temporary staff, the case management system was “rudimentary” and investigations were taking much longer than the Code envisages.

We’re left wondering why all of that hadn’t been picked up earlier – or if it had, why it hadn’t been acted on. Ross’s prescriptions focus a lot on fixing these systems, expertise and capacity issues – less on addressing what could have let it all get this far.

Prevention and education

The report is shakier on wider issues. As well as case handling, education and campaigning work come in for some scrutiny, and as in many universities, an online module dealing with legal consent and wider matters relating to gender-based violence had been introduced, with debates over the efficacy of these modules and whether to make them compulsory rehearsed here.

Ross’s report pretty much sits on the fence – neither engaging in the academic research or polling on these types of approaches, nor considering whether other forms of education other than “a thing you can click through in half an hour” might be used. Arguing that “ultimately, this is a policy decision for the university” is one thing – rehearsing a worry that such a module may cause incoming students to feel “intimidated or overly anxious” about these issues just feels divorced from the real world they inhabit.

One thing that’s curious about this section is that while Ross elsewhere notes that the university is a “very large organisation” with a “very diverse range of people in terms of age, interests and experience”, at no point in any of the sections on prevention does she give consideration to the idea that her work might need to be targeted around particular settings or groups.

That’s likely because while she notes that the numbers of cases reported are low, and concludes that there is likely under-reporting, at no stage does she consider what else might be done to establish patterns of prevalence to enable that targeting. Again, engaging in the academic evidence on the issue would have helped – and if Universities Scotland isn’t battering down OfS’ door to get in on its provider prevalence pilot, it should be.

Report and support

As is the case across the sector, one of those online reporting tools had been implemented that allows students to raise issues, concerns and incidents. But it’s often what happens behind the scenes that really matters – remarkably, Ross reports that there was no proper case handling system, and individual reports were being dealt with by a small group of very senior level staff.

Ross was “surprised” that members of university staff of seniority were dealing with casework – making issues difficult to escalate and creating problems if complaints were made subsequently. And in another issue heard across the sector, the problem of having to re-disclose to have something taken into account by different actors across the institution comes in for criticism, with a recommendation to resolve whatever GDPR and training issues might be the issue.

Geographical and temporal limits?

There’s a useful section on jurisdiction. The report picks up the subtleties involved in policing the conduct of students (and staff) who have lives outside of and adjacent to their relationship with the university – as well as students and staff at other universities – although doesn’t go as far as recommending the sort of sector or even city-wide approaches that would make the most sense given how porous these organisations are and the way in which staff and students can move between institutions.

It’s not helpful on settings where a partner operates the experience – just like Universities UK and the Office for Students in England, the report is pretty much silent on how to handle years abroad and placements, although there is an extensive section on the multiple students’ unions at Glasgow that concludes that they should have no role themselves in investigating or handling complaints of gender-based violence, even if an incident happens in a venue of or the broader context of one of the SUs.

There are other interesting areas of focus that should have resonance across the sector – on support, Ross calls for the capacity of the university counselling service to be increased to allow for an expansion in the provision of specialist gender-based violence counselling, and calls for a review of the advice, support and training provided to staff who respond to disclosures. She also raises questions about asking staff to undertake investigations into non-academic misconduct alongside other full-time responsibilities, and calls for training and guidance to assist members of Conduct Committees.

But there’s a number of other areas that, for me, are a problem – and they really concern power.

Judging the judges

A number of areas are praised in the report – like the Safe Zone app, a free online facility that allows students and staff to make contact with University Security and receive immediate help and support. The university has said it is “deeply sorry” that any member of its community has been subject to abuse or harassment. and says it is:

…fully committed to implementing the report’s recommendations, to ensure we build further rigour and confidence in our systems to support our community.

It says it will implement the recommendations as soon as possible, with final components in place before the start of the 2023-24 academic year.

But that will only all work if the recommendations are right.

It isn’t really a surprise that Ross avoids the questions of monitoring, regulation or accountability over her recommendations and improvements – a running theme is that folks at the university largely mean well, but have implemented badly – and anyway, the terms of reference didn’t really cover questioning why it should be for the university to mark its own homework.

But at the same time, Ross’ lack of recognition of what marking one’s own homework does to trust in the process is stark. On the question of the university commissioning someone external to carry investigations, the report never considers how that might improve complainant trust, let alone quality – and instead says that it is an option which should not be seriously considered because the university is “a large institution and is able to manage its own affairs.”

Similarly, a section on staff-student relationships – where the policy is one of these “declare them if they happen” scenarios – seriously underplays the power imbalances involved in allowing academic staff to “come on” to students with impunity. (Yet) again, engagement in the academic literature might have caused Ross to revise an arguably naive view that “the student will, in many respects, be an equal partner in the relationship with his or her own agency.”

A matter of trust

We’ll never know if the Ross review would have come about – and its revelations turned into recommendations – were it not for the BBC and Al-Jazeera, although I feel confident in doubting it. But we do need to try to avoid students having to go to the media to secure change. Ultimately, it’s in everyone’s interests for fair processes to work – but these have to involve judging the conduct of universities as much as they involve those universities judging the conduct of students and staff.

That the report has nothing to say on the potential roles of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) or the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is as upsetting as the fact that Ross has not considered that regulation on these issues is about to kick in south of the border – because universities haven’t been able to be trusted in this area. And even if the intents were benign and the resourcing in place, I don’t think they ever can be. They’re too big, there are too many egos, and too much reputation is on the line. Ironically, it’s the very fact that it was media coverage that likely triggered the Ross review that tells us why its terms of reference were so fundamentally flawed.

So as I said at the beginning – if you can set aside the “chat to people but don’t do much research” approach, and you accept the status quo framing of benign, autonomous, well-meaning institutions doing their best to operate complex procedures, the approach here of tidying up some procedures and attaching proper resource is the right one.

If, though, you accept that huge differentials in power lurk here – between complainants and the university, between staff and students, between those that close ranks and those that don’t, between those on Court who were insufficiently probing and everyone else, and between senior managers (whose job is principally to protect the university and its reputation) and others, then not only will you find the review strangely unsatisfactory – you’ll also yearn for a more substantial, sector-wide and fundamentally structural approach.

One response to “Should students and staff trust a university’s review of gender-based violence?

  1. The situation is a mess, and as usual framed in many places as a male on female problem, without any means to support the reverse situation. Something I’ve had to deal with as a Trades Union rep. where a group of students used false unprovable accusations in an attempt to get a staff member fired as they didn’t like their personal politics outside of the University. The ‘power’ lies with students, and they know it, staff at all levels now know this and most actively attempt to avoid any situation where an accusation can be made, no more 1 to 1 mentoring for a start.

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