What a sector-wide analysis of university policies tells us about approaches to sexual misconduct

Reflecting on their analysis of university sexual misconduct policies, Sundari Anitha and Ana Jordan reveal concerning trends, and argue that the sector has a very long way to go

Ana Jordan an Associate Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln

Sundari Anitha is Professor of Gender, Violence and Work at University of Lincoln

University policies are crucial to addressing gender-based violence (GBV) in higher education communities, and analysis of such policies could reveal how the sector is progressing on the issue of GBV as a whole.

However, we found no comprehensive, independent reviews of UK university GBV policies.

So we conducted the first such study to map the state of the sector – examining 129 institutions’ policies – which would be used to address GBV against students (and, in some cases, staff), identifying best practice and common missteps.

Anon reports

Anonymous reporting is vital given the significant gap between prevalence and low reporting rates for GBV in higher education (often said to be due to the significant barriers to disclosure), and gathering reporting data can enable institutions to monitor trends and take preventative action.

Disappointingly, we found 17 institutions actively discouraged or did not allow anonymous reporting, and only 28 policies signposted that anonymous reports were possible. In the 28 policies, it was often unclear whether ‘full’ anonymity was available, where neither perpetrator nor reporting party are named. Full anonymity should be facilitated alongside other forms of anonymous reporting for those who would prefer this option. And while a small number of institutions say they keep records on GBV, not all are committed to taking action on this data. Only eight policies stated that data would be recorded, evaluated/analysed, and used to inform prevention strategies – including in specific academic departments with high complaint levels. These institutions detailed monitoring mechanisms, including naming committees tasked with periodically analysing/acting upon anonymous reporting trends.

Gender matters

Another issue we found is that most institutions (around two-thirds) use generic “dignity and respect” or “bullying and harassment” policies to deal with GBV rather than tailored, ‘named’ policies which state the problem they are addressing in the name of the policy – such as “sexual misconduct” or “GBV” policies. How violence is defined determines what is visible and shapes responses to the problem. Signalling the specific harms of GBV through named policies becomes an important first step in reassuring victim/survivors of institutional recognition of and tailored responses to the problem.

We also found that most UK university policies do not explicitly recognise gender as a cause and consequence of gendered violence, commonly framing the problem as something that “can be experienced by anyone” without acknowledging the disproportionate victimisation of women and girls, and gender and sexual minorities – which reflects the degendered approach to the problem in Universities UK (UUK) guidance.

GBV was most often constructed within policy as merely an interpersonal matter requiring individual redress rather than as a social harm that reiterates and reflects broader inequalities based on gender (and other social relations). The most glaring example of this is within the pattern of policies suggesting mediation/informal resolution for sexual harassment/violence which completely ignores the power differentials between perpetrators and victim/survivors. This was further compounded in some policies by warnings to potential complainants about negative consequences of making “vexatious/malicious/unfounded” complaints, “frivolous” or “false” allegations. Such statements mirror – or may be informed by – societal misconceptions about GBV being overreported and gendered constructions of women victim/survivors as vindictive and deceitful.

Other significant gaps included policies rarely recognising the intersection of gender with other social relations of power in constructing vulnerability to violence and conditioning responses/actions. In addition, even most “named” policies targeted sexual violence, which risks neglecting other forms of GBV (e.g. domestic violence).

On a positive note, some policies recognised GBV as a social problem and acknowledged the harm caused by prevailing myths about GBV. Victim/survivor-centred policies indicated a culture of belief through positive statements that victims/survivors are not at fault and encouraged reporting. But this is not consistent throughout the sector

Criminally unclear

We also examined what policies say about offences that might constitute a criminal offence. Recent UUK advice responded to criticisms of the 1994 Zellick guidance – which encouraged universities to take a ‘hands-off’ approach – suggesting institutions can take internal action where a victim/survivor does not report to the police and outlining circumstances where precautionary or disciplinary action might proceed alongside/during criminal proceedings. The guidance also emphasises that wherever possible victim/survivors’ wishes about reporting to the police should be prioritised to avoid further distress. Though many policies incorporated aspects of this revised guidance, there was a mixed picture.

A significant proportion of policies (46 of 129) stated it was the victim/survivor’s choice to report to the police and that this decision would be supported in most cases. Notably, ‘named’ GBV-specific policies were most likely to do so. However, a few institutions suggested that students must report to the police for the university to (potentially) act, and a small number strongly encouraged it.

In some cases, institutions implied they were very likely to report behaviour that could be criminal misconduct without consulting with the reporting party, with a few suggesting that referral to the police would be automatic/routine. Only a small number (13) explicitly noted that support is offered to reporting parties regardless of whether they engage with the police.

And only forty-six institutions followed UUK guidance in indicating they might act through internal disciplinary processes even where reporting parties instigated police action and the reported party was not tried for, or was acquitted of, criminal offences. This is important as reported parties may not have been found guilty of criminal offences but have nonetheless breached internal university codes of conduct and internal disciplinary processes require a lower standard of proof than necessary for criminal cases.

Future directions

Overall, we found some problematic content in many policies, which reinforced dominant (purportedly “gender-blind”) constructions of gender and GBV, limiting the development of helpful solutions to the problem.

There was a widespread lack of clarity in relation to anonymous reporting data and an absence of commitment to what would be done with any data gathered. Institutions are missing opportunities to take preventative action on GBV. There also remains considerable variation in the take-up of recent UUK guidance which suggests moving beyond the problematic Zellick guidance.

Among the ‘named’ policies, there was some evidence of good practice and effective action to counter dominant constructions of GBV, but the broad picture suggests the need for an urgent and comprehensive approach to revising policies on GBV.

You can read more about our findings and recommendations in Jordan, A., Anitha, S. and Chanamuto, N. (2023). Policies on gender-based violence in UK universities: Understanding current practice, mapping future directions, including a checklist for institutions to assess the state of their policy. Available from: https://gbvpolicies.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk

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