According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, between 2018 and 2020, full-time students were more likely to have experienced sexual assault in the past year than any other occupational group.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2019 inquiry into racial harassment found that 24 per cent of ethnic minority students had experienced racial harassment at their place of study, and the Community Security Trust’s recent report found that there had been 150 antisemitic incidents in the higher education community over the last two academic years.
These alarming statistics signal a serious impact on the lives of real students. So, what has the Office for Students (OfS) been doing about harassment and sexual misconduct? A lot.
Help and encouragement
Since 2018 we’ve developed an extensive range of effective practice, guidance and resources with the sector.
We’ve provided £4.7 million to 119 projects to tackle sexual misconduct, online harassment, and hate crime, including religion-based hate crime. And we’ve evaluated and shared what works.
In April 2021 we published a set of voluntary standards in our Statement of Expectations so all universities and colleges were clear about what we thought they should be doing to tackle these issues effectively.
All this work has focused on helping universities and colleges to understand complex issues, take action to protect students, and respond effectively when incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct do occur.
So in regulatory terms, we’ve been encouraging, supporting and funding the sector to self-regulate in this area. Much as HEFCE, our predecessor body, might have done. Because that’s what universities and colleges told us would be the most effective approach.
How has that self-regulation worked for students? Not as well as we had hoped.
Slow and uneven
An independent evaluation of our statement of expectations reported that there has been progress, but this has been too slow and uneven. Systems, policies and procedures for preventing and responding to harassment and sexual misconduct across the sector are not consistently effective.
Crucially, students – the people these very policies should protect – reported that they had not felt the impact of the changes universities and colleges said they had made. That really matters – it cannot be right that students face a lottery in terms of exposure to harassment and sexual misconduct and how incidents are dealt with.
They should feel confident that their institution will protect them, wherever they choose to study – because they are more likely to succeed on their courses and into their careers if this is the case.
We think a fresh approach is needed. And one that makes use of the statutory powers not available to the OfS’ predecessors because, as a regulator, we want to ensure that universities and colleges do everything they can to protect students from harassment and sexual misconduct. Our student panel agrees.
So we’re launching a consultation that proposes a new condition of registration for all registered providers to strengthen our approach.
Protection for students
We’re proposing that each institution should publish a single document explaining the steps it will take to protect students from harassment and sexual misconduct and how it will handle incidents that do occur. It would need to set out the support it will provide to those involved in incidents.
And the training it will provide to students and staff about what constitutes harassment and sexual misconduct and, in the case of staff, how to handle disclosures, formal reports, and investigations.
Having explained its approach, a university or college must then deliver that in practice.
In thinking about harassment in particular, we’re clear that an institution’s statutory and regulatory obligations for freedom of speech within the law should be prioritised.
Our proposals also include a ban on non-disclosure agreements in cases of harassment and sexual misconduct. Many institutions have already banned NDAs and we think it’s time for the others to follow.
We’re also making proposals governing personal relationships between staff and students in some circumstances. Our concern here is to ensure students are protected from conflicts of interests or abuses of power.
We know that this will elicit a range of views and so we’re suggesting different options – requiring such relationships to be reported and a register of relationships maintained (our preferred option), or a ban on such relationships altogether.
The right sort of burdens
Our proposals would place new enforceable requirements on all universities and colleges – some may consider that to be unduly burdensome. But self-regulation has not delivered sufficient progress for students and we consider that there is a compelling case for a different approach.
And, of course, those universities and colleges already working effectively in this area will have less distance to travel. They would experience less regulatory burden than those yet to put appropriate measures in place.
Our consultation is open for ten weeks, providing significant time for institutions, students, and others with an interest in these issues, to make considered responses.
We want to make this consultation as accessible as possible to all who wish to respond – for example, we’re hosting two webinars in March, one for universities and colleges, and one for students.
We look forward to hearing responses on these important issues and invite support for our work to ensure that every student is protected from harassment and sexual misconduct while they study.