This article is more than 1 year old

We can’t wait any longer to be safe(r) on campus

Rhiannon Ellis argues that after more than a decade of dawdling, it's time to broaden, deepen and accelerate the pace of change on harassment and sexual misconduct
This article is more than 1 year old

Rhiannon Ellis is President at Herts SU

One of the things that student leaders are often warned about is that universities rarely change as fast as we would like.

Whilst that does make sense in theory, I was thirteen when the NUS’ Hidden Marks shone a light on the extent of sexual misconduct on campus – yet twelve years later significant change has been slow to come by.

One of the things we’re not warned about is the way in which we end up carrying the burdens of disclosure of negative experiences that students have.

For those of us who have listened to or supported students that have experienced harassment and sexual misconduct – and those of us that have personally been victims – this lack of progress adds to the internal narrative of self-doubt we face when confronted by the slow pace of change. Am I overthinking this? Am I overreacting? Am I doing too much on this one issue? Am I being unrealistic?

So when the Office for Students review of its statement of expectations on preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct was released last week, I know I speak for others when I say I felt a huge relief. The pace and depth of change across universities has been properly recognised as an issue and official recommendations have been made to deal with it. Having this sort of strategic direction from the regulator – that prompts universities to make tackling harassment and sexual misconduct a priority across campus – gives me and those also campaigning for change, hope.

Experience as a student consultee

Earlier this year, I was one of the student reps consulted as part of the SUMS review. Many of us being consulted reported improvements we had seen at our universities since the statement of expectations was launched. But as the final review highlights, an overwhelming majority of us felt that progress was too slow, and varied significantly at individual provider level.

The report referenced the conversations we had during the consultation phase, where we fed back that the speed of progress often depended on the priorities and levels of advocacy from individual members of senior leadership teams. Where it was felt there weren’t many senior advocates, progress has been slow. For some where there was a lack of eagerness to work on this issue, they recalled that the statement was seen as a tick box exercise with little effort to prioritise the issue.

For me it is essential that a member of the senior leadership team drives the change required and is held accountable for tackling harassment and sexual misconduct at their institution. It also ought to be something discussed at Governing Body level, and ideally added to the sort of risk register that considered risks to students and their access to education as well as to finances and buildings. This way there would be a regular requirement to review the progress and work being done, as well as avoiding all of the work being the responsibility of one advocate.

Influence of student officers

One thing that was frustrating was that many of the students interviewed felt that most of the changes that have been made at a local level came from the lobbying efforts of SUs and student campaigners, in some cases including some students who were victim-survivors.

Although many of us welcome the formalising of the statement of expectations, there needs to be both pressure and support from OfS to ensure that universities do get on board – rather than student leaders often feeling like the only person in the room pushing for change.

For example, following the “Can’t buy my silence” campaign last year, calling for institutions to stop using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases of sexual misconduct my institution, and many others, did sign up to it, but often only after sustained lobbying from sabbatical officer teams, which is time that could have been spent on other things.

The report also highlights the lack of available data about the prevalence on campuses, and it has been recommended that a national sexual misconduct higher education prevelance survey is conducted.

This was discussed during the consultation as many of us felt that some institutions did have data and were willing to share it with their SU, others felt that there was either limited or no data available, and there was a severe lack of willingness to share this information – reaffirming the sense that there is real inconsistency of approach and progress being made at individual provider level.

There’s no reason to think that universities should be competing over keeping students safe – so universal standards on data gathering, complaints categorisation and prevalence research would complement a sector-wide and universal commitment to safety.

Active bystander training

OfS CEO Susan Lapworth highlighted the important issue of training and prevention when she spoke at a select committee a few weeks ago:

the importance of really credible [bystander] training and credible training that’s properly evaluated and so that we know has an impact in the real world. I’m less persuaded by training that is a quick hour here or a bit on the web if you fancy it. So we will try to frame in that consultation what we think “credible” is in that context, and our focus will be on training that’s effective because it’s been evaluated and we know that it works.”

A strong steer to universities having to implement mandatory bystander training would be particularly welcome. Optional training, like with workshops on consent, tends to attract students who are already actively engaged with these issues and are campaigning against sexual harassment on campus. Optional training, or a bit “on the web if you fancy it” as Susan put it, means we miss a whole chunk of students who would not voluntarily engage with this content and therefore may not be well informed.

Many SUs have created active bystander training packages over the last year, however as Susan insinuated, ensuring they are credible and evaluated is vital and this is particularly challenging when there is minimal buy-in from the institution. Taking Lapworth’s statements and the content of the evaluation, it seems likely that OfS will make it clear what they mean by expected standards for bystander and prevention training over the coming months. Introducing a kind of best practice would be a welcome steer for a lot of students campaigning on these issues.

Some SUs like UCL have created an extensive package to train students in being active bystanders supported by strong student engagement. Yet for smaller SUs like mine where the Active Bystander package isn’t compulsory, there are no consent training modules being co-created with the university, and we do not have the capacity to develop and distribute a programme like UCL’s without the university’s financial backing, it is very difficult to tackle the problem.

Until there is sufficient funding and support from the regulator, these standards will yield similar results as the statement of expectations so far, in that there will be mixed take-up from provider to provider.

Even with supportive students helping to lobby the university, many of them have already done voluntary consent or bystander training. But the lack of infrastructure to run these programmes is particularly problematic considering many within the student body neither understand what constitutes as sexual harasment nor what qualifies as consent. Setting expectations around this infrastructure will help.

Insights survey

Locally, lots of SUs have been surveying students on their experiences in this area, with some of the results clearly identifying key areas of concern as we move towards OfS conducting national prevalence research.

On my campus we asked students if they understood the university’s definition of “consent” (as specificed in the Sexual Violence and Harassment policy) and 98% of respondents stated “Yes” with 2% stating “No”. But when we asked students further questions around whether someone can consent or what behaviours constitute sexual violence the results were very concerning.

When asked “Can someone consent to sex/sexual activity if they are drunk” over 1 in 5 answered either “Yes” or “I am not sure”. And when we gave students a list of behaviours that would constitute sexual harassment as set by the Sexual Offences Act, again the results were deeply concerning. When asked if “unwanted touching on any part of the body (including over clothing)” was sexual harassment, over 1 in 10 of those surveyed answered “No”.

When we saw these results we launched a campaign to get mandatory consent training implemented on campus (which is common practice at other institutions) and when we sought student feedback on this, out of almost 700 students surveyed, 92 per cent said that they would support mandatory consent training as they felt it would be beneficial for the wider student population. We now await implementation of the programme that was agreed – and I’m hoping that the project isn’t quietly shelved next year when I finish my time as a sabbatical officer, as I know this has happened in multiple other universities.

Looking to the future

Like many other student leaders working on these issues, I really welcome the new recommendations and support from the regulator – but there is still a long way to go to ensure that there is consistency across all institutions. In order to ensure that the recommendations are effective, institutions need to work with their SUs and student campaigning groups to ensure that there is a consistent student-centred approach.

I am also really glad to see that the SUMs review recommended that OfS establish an expert advisory panel to support the co-creation of the programme over the next few years. Hopefully this will support the development of a more coherent and developed strategy at each provider that is a minimum standard rather than something individuals have to push for.

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