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Student safety should be a requirement, not an optional extra

Should we be urging universities to take action on harassment and hate, or requiring? Jim Dickinson picks apart an evaluation of safeguarding projects in universities.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When I worked at a students’ union, we were involved in a pilot project aimed at tackling sexual misconduct on campus.

One of the strands involved an attempt at resetting social norms, and causing a conversation to happen on campus – and one of the wheezes the working group came up with was to spray paint some of the more shocking statistics researched by NUS over the years onto walkways around campus. Knowing that we’d be hit by layers of bureaucracy and whataboutery, key to the initiative was surprise – they’d just appear one morning, and we wouldn’t be consulting.

The day they appeared was international arrivals day, and it’s fair to say that by the time the campus came alive we had certainly started a robust conversation. Heads of departments emailed in to warn that international students’ parents would be putting their kids on the first plane back. The campus medical centre warned that they would put people off from going in to seek help, and anyway “men face harassment too”. The Estates department sharpened its pen, referring to ancient postering policies and fines for the “damage” that would be coming our way.

And then the phone call came. SU CEOs will know this one well – the quiet word from someone near the top suggesting, in no uncertain terms, that a pressure washer should be procured, and sharpish. I had to point out that the student newspaper had already noticed the handiwork and would want to know why we’d washed away the problem we were highlighting. I also had to point out that I’d probably have to give them the photo we had of the Vice Chancellor showing real leadership, can in hand, helping out with the spraying. The decals stayed.

Evaluation time

It’s a silly story in a way, but buried inside Advance HE’s excellent evaluation of the second round of OfS harassment and hate crime catalyst projects is a remarkable finding.

Concern remains at senior levels within some providers about the potential for reputational damage (and specifically a negative impact on student recruitment) from publicising initiatives to tackle hate crime and harassment, thereby hindering or preventing further work taking place”.

The brave student officers (or snowflakes as the press would have them) – usually women – that spent the early part of the decade raising the issue and the evidence around it to senior managers – usually men – that faced denial and discomfort will know the problem all too well.

There are a couple of reports out to accompany a dissemination event, and both are rich in lessons for the sector. All the usual stuff is in there of course – the need for senior buy in, the need for a diversity of approaches, and the need for student and staff involvement are straight from the template used on any HE policy problem. But there are also important insights on a range of initiatives and approaches where the insights are actionable – on everything from anonymous reporting to project management. It’s deserving of a proper read.

Finding the findings

Many of the findings are fascinating. For example – reporting and data sharing around an institution (not least between SU and uni but also between departments) is a huge unresolved issue (see low level but repeat offenders) and needs proper nationally funded legal work. Discovering the denial and outright hostility to even the concept of “micro-aggressions” in some pockets of academia was inevitable but doubtless still shocking to those running the projects. And the surprise that some projects had that student sabbatical officers have a finite term of office, or that there isn’t, in fact, an endless supply of student volunteers willing to deliver complex work on the cheap is dispiriting.

There’s a fine line between involving the victims of harassment and hate crime in project design and evaluation, and project delivery strategies that rely on their unpaid emotional labour. Too many projects in the evaluation look to have crossed that line.

We need experts after all

One of the consistent themes is the need for real capacity and expertise – and a worry that the investment required to secure it won’t last when Catalyst funding dries up. The lessons from Title IX implementation in the US should have taught us that amateur investigations led by people with a day job were not going to be suitable in a post-Zellick world that can’t now palm cases off on the police.

But we also know from talking to SUs around the country that where reporting rates have shot up, a backlog of formal disciplinary cases is often emerging – predictable but still a big problem. Those policies (and practice that surround them) were designed for a different time and a different set of problems – and need urgent review – but the kneejerk is to throw students off those panels given the case load, complexity and legal risks. That would be a shame – we should retain the principle that students are involved in panels for these cases – but improve the training and funding that enables them to do it safely and effectively.

There’s a question of scale. Some of the projects involved bystander initiatives that were obviously not scalable in a meaningful way, and that has to be a crucial consideration. And it’s obvious that optional online consent modules are not the answer to a growing body of issues that require a more involved induction to the university community. As we said when Damian Hinds started talking about “Honour Codes”, he’s confusing the summative with the formative – it’s the time spent on social and community induction in the US that makes (even then a limited) difference, not the bit of paper they sign at the end.

There weren’t any alternative providers in the mix – presumably because Catalyst funding was a HEFCE thing now being burned off by OfS. There are real risks for students in the “long tail” of micro providers now on the register, many of whom will be international or in specialised environments where hate and harassment can be easy to conceal and hard to complain about. And there’s little evidence that any of the projects tackled what we might call the harder to reach bits of an institution. There’s solid research that suggests that the more tight knit a pocket of students, and the more that professional reputation kicks in, the more risks there are that abuse happens and is covered up if ever raised – medics, elite sports clubs and PGR students all need specific strategies (and a good degree of bravery) if they are to be successful.

Regulate to educate

We’ll need some measures – and good governance. If your Governing body has never seen “Hidden Marks” or the UUK guidance or these projects, why on earth not? Direct oversight of the work and some numbers is required from these people. Right now OfS is testing a question in its pilot postgraduate NSS that asks whether students feel safe. It’s not perfect, but on the assumption that it’s coming to UG NSS, knowing who doesn’t and where they are is crucial – as is knowing if the initiatives that will be rolled out are working. And yes, I know that every student will define “safety” differently. But given feeling safe is a basic prerequisite for learning, I’m sure that we would all want all students to feel it – and to interrogate where characteristics, campuses or courses don’t.

All of which brings us to the big question – regulation. Of course it is the case that prescriptive regulation, setting out in detail which initiatives or projects should be implemented would be problematic – quite aside from the cliche that “one size would not fit all”, as one of the staff involved in a project puts it:

I’m thinking that your demographics, where you are, your campus structure, how your students live are so, so different… they live completely differently. What works there is definitely not going to work in [area] and I think that whilst it is wonderful that we can share good practice and things that have worked really well, but there also needs to be that important caveat of you need to engage your students in a very university specific way.

But having options over how to tackle a problem is one thing – giving institutions the option on whether to tackle the problem at all is quite another. How have we ended up with a regulatory system that tests for compliance with Prevent or the duty to facilitate electoral registration, but leaves proactively tacking sexual harassment and hate crime as an optional extra? Tackling a wicked policy problem does involve testing and piloting. We’ve done that now – and given the English regulatory system separates a baseline of universal expectations from a basket of diverse nice-to-haves, I can’t think of any reason to not regard this agenda as something that should be in the former category, not the latter.

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