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We mustn’t ignore the harm from online harassment

Are we taking seriously the real harms students face? Andy Phippen and Emma Bond on online harassment in higher education
This article is more than 4 years old

Andy Phippen is a professor of social responsibility in information technology at the University of Plymouth and is a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk.

Emma Bond is director of research, head of the graduate school and professor of socio-technical research at the University of Suffolk.

The recently announced Office for Students consultation on “harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education” is to be welcomed.

Across the actor we are seeing growing numbers of cases relating to these behaviours on campus and, in some instances, poor responses from institutions tasked with an unquestionable duty of care over their students. But we would also raise concern that this consultation makes little mention of online harassment or misconduct. Aside from a brief acknowledgement of image-based abuse being a form of sexual misconduct, there’s just one line in the consultation:

…would include harassment or sexual misconduct through any medium, including, for example, online.

This is surprising given the recently published UUK guidance on Tackling Online Harassment and Promoting Online Welfare. We would argue strongly that online abuse and harassment is not a simple facilitation method for sexual misconduct and harassment and can, instead, offer abusers far greater opportunity to harass in ways not possible in an offline context – for example, reaching thousands of potential victims, covert surveillance or tracking, identity abuse and credit fraud.


Online harassment can have a lasting impact upon victims, with effects range from mental or emotional stress to financial loss, and in some cases difficulty in securing employment and housing. The launch of the Universities UK (UUK) ‘Changing the Culture’ report in 2016 called for further action to specifically tackle online harassment and hate crime.

However, there has until very recently been a dearth of guidance in relation to current practice and regulation around online safety within the higher education sector. To address this discrepancy, UUK launched their most recent report Tackling Online Harassment and Promoting Online Welfare report in September 2019. Nevertheless, as borne out in recent press coverage, institutions are sometimes concerned that, if they publicly address issues of online safeguarding they may raise reputational risks as a “university with an online harassment problem”.

Taking a lead

We would argue that it is important for the Office for Students to take a lead as the sector regulator in acknowledging that online harassment is a concern. Particularly as a result of recent research we have conducted that shows that universities are, in general, ill prepared to either recognise online harassment or support students who become victims to it.

In the study, we conducted Freedom of Information requests to ask HEIs to provide us with details of policies that addressed online harassment and hate speech, information on the number of instances of online abuse recorded, the nature of reporting routes, staff training, and external referral, and received responses from 135 HEIs in the UK.

What is clear from our findings is this is not a sector that has established policy nor practice to support students who might become victims of online abuse and harassment. We saw pockets of good practice, but we also saw the majority of institutions who have little by way of policy, practice, recording or training that is anywhere near an effective response.

Very low levels of recorded incident of online abuse in universities were reported. This suggests one of two things. Perhaps our HEIs are oases of virtue in a world where online abuse is common? Or perhaps a more likely reason is that either students were not reporting abuse to institutions or these reports were not being effectively recorded. We would suggest, based upon our experiences in the university sector for a long time, and as a result of discussions with many students and staff on this subject, that the latter is the case.

Policy development

At a policy level most respondents were found wanting. This is clearly a concern because without effective policy there is no logical progression to good practice. If policy for tackling online harassment is not defined, how can students expect to be dealt with in an effective, fair and consistent manner? From the responses we received, a vast range of policies were proposed as the location from which online abuse is addressed, but there was no clear place for it to sit.

However, perhaps more concerning was that from the 266 policies returned to us by universities, bearing in mind these are the policies they claim addressed online abuse, only 40% had any mention of the word “online” within them. In the majority, those policies universities have reported to us as tackling online abuse and harassment pay only lip service at best. There were a few examples of good practice, however, these were very few and far between.

We also saw a very concerning lack of training around online abuse, with few universities providing specialist training. Those who did claim to cover would address it as a facet of things including bullying, harassment or equality and diversity (much like the OfS consultation). We have already highlighted the different nature of online abuse, and the need to recognise it as a specific form of harassment. A lot of online abuse is dismissed as banter and victim blaming is rife. Frontline staff need to recognise abuse when it occurs and how an institution might best support students. We also saw a failure to relate online technologies to more serious sexual abuse, harassment or criminal activities related to minors, even though we know these sorts of abuses occur in university settings.

We also saw a reliance on anonymous reporting in a number of cases, viewed by some institutions as a positive tool to allow students to disclose abuse. However, it would seem, given the volumes of reporting, that this was not necessarily used effectively, and moreover, we would argue strongly that anonymous systems provide little opportunity to actually support a victim of abuse or bring an offender to justice. While there is an argument that they are useful because students do not wish to be identified when making a disclosure, we suggest if students knew a disclosure would be tackled effectively, this would not be the case.

A duty of care

Clearly, we would like to see the university sector take their duty of care responsibilities seriously in order to effectively support students who are the victims of online abuse, and we would rather the sector responded because they believe student welfare, effective reporting and consistent staff training are good practice, rather than things they will resist until statutory duties are imposed following the OfS consultation. There is a long way to go. Universities need to realise that student safeguarding is a concern they need to face, rather than assume a lack of statutory duties absolves them of this responsibility, as highlighted in one response we received:

We have been asked to clarify your definition of “student safeguarding” as the university would normally use the term “safeguarding” concerns raised about individuals under the age of 18.

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