To address sexual misconduct effectively we must first understand it

Nike Gustave introduces OfS’s pilot survey to address data gaps in prevalence of sexual misconduct in English higher education

Nike Gustave is Compliance and Student Protection Manager at the Office for Students

Today, the Office for Students (OfS) is launching a pilot survey to understand the prevalence of sexual misconduct in higher education in England – the first time a survey like this has been run at scale in the UK.

It will ask students at thirteen higher education providers about their experiences of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment, and how these experiences have affected their lives and studies. It will also explore students’ experiences of using the reporting mechanisms at their university.

We have commissioned IFF Research to run the survey, working with a group of volunteer providers, which range in size from large multi-facility universities with many thousands of students, to specialist higher education providers with smaller cohorts.

Building on experience

The survey draws on international best practice in prevalence surveys in higher education, including the ARC3 survey, which is widely used in the United States; the Republic of Ireland’s Student Experience of Sexual Violence and Harassment Survey; and the National Student Safety Survey in Australia (NSSS). The surveys from Ireland and Australia are national surveys, with strong participation from all publicly funded universities.

As we’ve developed the pilot survey, we’ve worked with an external advisory group consisting of academics and practitioners with expertise in research into sexual misconduct, many of whom have conducted smaller-scale prevalence surveys. We are grateful to these colleagues for their advice and support.

Putting students’ needs first

A survey of this sort explores difficult and sensitive subjects and the language in some of the questions is deliberately explicit. It’s important that the questions are asked in this way so respondents are clear about what we mean and can explain the types of behaviours or incidents that have affected them. These explicit questions are much more likely to provide an accurate picture of the prevalence of forms of sexual misconduct, and so reduce the risk of understating the scale of the issue.

We’ve carefully considered research ethics and sought to ensure that students would be as comfortable as possible with the questions we’re asking. We’ve consulted students to test question comprehension, readability, and suitability for a wide audience. The results were reassuring: students said the questions were at times personal and challenging, but that they were happy to answer them as they thought the role of the survey in addressing these issues was important.

We’ve taken care to flag sensitive questions and students will be able to skip those sections or exit the survey if they wish. We think it’s important that students can decide for themselves how much they disclose in their survey responses, even if skipped questions will mean we collect less data on the scale and types of sexual misconduct.

The survey also contains links to national support services, and support services available to students at their university.

Addressing gaps in the existing data

Our pilot survey is important. There is currently limited quantitative data at a national level on how sexual misconduct affects students in higher education in England. We have data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales but this gives only a partial picture of these issues for students. We also have access to the results of surveys and polls, but often these are not representative because students can self-select into them. The absence of good, sector-wide data means it’s difficult for providers to know how to target their work and whether those efforts are successful.

Our pilot survey does not take a self-selecting approach: it will ask all students at participating providers Students at these providers will be part of the research by virtue of being in the sample, whether they respond. This comparative approach to data collection will provide a clearer picture of how prevalence can be measured in the English higher education sector. Better quality data specifically about this sector will improve our understanding of the extent and scale of sexual misconduct in higher education, and point to areas in which providers’ approaches could be developed to support students.

Next steps

We plan to evaluate the responses to the pilot survey in early 2024, and to think more about what a sector-wide prevalence survey might look like. But the pilot prevalence survey is only one part of the OfS’s work to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct. Our strategy for 2022-25 sets out our goal to ensure higher education providers act to prevent harassment and sexual misconduct and respond effectively if incidents do occur.

Following an independent evaluation of our voluntary statement of expectations we consulted on a new condition of registration earlier this year. We proposed a range of steps that higher education providers would need to take, including maintaining a register of personal relationships between certain staff and students, where the staff member has particular responsibilities towards the student; introducing mandatory training for students and staff, including bystander awareness training; and each provider publishing a document on how any incidents should be reported and how students will be supported through the process.

We are carefully considering the responses to our consultation – including a significant number of responses from students and their representatives – and expect to publish our decisions in the coming months. In the meantime, we’re grateful to those providers volunteering to take part in the pilot prevalence survey. To tackle a problem effectively, you need to understand it. This survey will give us data to improve everybody’s understanding of these important issues.

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