Five years on from Universities UK’s guidance for the higher education sector on tackling sexual violence, harassment and hate crime, the Office for Students (OfS) has finally joined the club.
Its statement of expectations outlines how higher education institutions should address sexual harassment and violence on campus. They are almost certainly beyond what any institution is already doing and so the guidance provides a number of reminders that they should be working on this issue.
But there is a problem at the heart of the statement. It assumes that if providers follow existing guidance on complaints processes, this will adequately tackle the issue. Certainly, if institutions were following existing processes more closely that would improve complainants’ experiences immeasurably, but the concerns raised by survivors – for example at Warwick University – over justice and safety on campus will not be addressed by OfS’ statement of expectations.
This is because existing processes do not, for the most part, address what sexual violence survivors are looking for from the complaints process. In my research with complainants of staff sexual misconduct, the most common reason they gave for reporting was to protect other women from further harm from the same perpetrator, and/or to also protect themselves from ongoing harassment or violence and to be able to continue their studies or careers.
However, as I’ve outlined recently in the Journal of Social and Legal Studies (open access), these types of outcomes are very difficult to achieve under existing processes.
In my research, one undergraduate student who I’ll call Gemma had dropped out of her degree course following sexual harassment from a lecturer. After a difficult, but functional, complaints process, her complaint was upheld and she received a tuition fees refund for the year as “remedy”.
However, when she managed to return to university the following year she had to drop her studies on the subject she was passionate about and change degree courses in order to avoid seeing the lecturer who had harassed her.
On paper, Gemma’s account shows a successful process that follows the OfS’ recommendations as well as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) guidance for complaints processes – her complaint was upheld and she received “remedy” for it from her institution. This “remedy” was even offered without her having to go through a further process to receive this remedy, as is often the case.
But the idea that this remedy was effective in “putting things right”, in the words of the OIA, was laughable to Gemma. Financial remedy, while welcome, was not what she was seeking. What she needed from this process was to be able to continue studying the subject she loved in the institution of her choice, and to know that the lecturer she had reported would not be able to harass other students. Sadly, such options for “remedy” were never even on the table for her.
Protecting groups from harm
Gemma’s experience demonstrates some of the difficulties in taking sexual harassment and violence complaints through existing processes. One of the central problems is that sexual harassment is, by definition, an issue of discrimination on the basis of membership of a group. While an individualised complaints process can, in some cases, be effective for a particular complainant, it fails to address one of the major reasons why students report – to protect others.
Not only that, but it also leaves other students or staff who have been targeted or who are concerned about the harassment without any closure or remedy. Indeed, Gemma knew that the lecturer who had harassed her had a wider reputation as being “creepy” among other students. As a result, this mode of dealing with the complaints as an individualised issue means that any impacts on the wider student body – for example, loss of faith in their university dealing effectively with complaints, and feeling unsafe in learning environments – are not addressed.
Such collective forms of remedy are more difficult to offer than money. They require recognising the multiple and wide-ranging harms that sexual harassment and violence do to complainants and those around them. The OfS guidance does suggest that institutions may offer “an explanation of any actions the provider has taken, or not taken, as a result of the complaint”.
This suggestion – also made by the OIA – would certainly be a good first step, even if it is not one that seems to be routinely used. But remedies and outcomes to complaints need to address collective, as well as individual issues. This is particularly challenging in an environment where GDPR is routinely interpreted as conservatively as possible. But we need to better understand what justice and safety look like for sexual harassment complainants, and difficult though it is, we urgently need to get much more creative about remedies for harassment.
If these fundamental issues in the structure of complaints processes are not addressed by the higher education sector, then scandals as seen at Warwick, and the accompanying loss of trust by students in institutions to address this issue, will continue. OfS should remember that harassment complaints are about protecting students, not their universities.