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Why not take a risk-based approach to discrimination or harassment on campus?

Jim Dickinson considers the best way to approach the risks to equality of opportunity that students really care about
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I don’t have any actual figures on this, but I’m willing to wager that the supposed need to avoid a “one size fits all” approach is the single most overused phrase in higher education policy deliberations.

It’s a permanent tension. Make your policy prescriptions too principles-based, and your best efforts at enabling folks to use their common sense will be lost under the weight of other tick box tasks. Make them too specific, and there’s always a reason why a particular action is impossible, unsuitable or just wouldn’t work with “our” students.

But I’m starting to pick up an ironic pattern – that those representing an institution in a discussion often bemoan the imposition of uniform solutions or actions to a problem across the sector on the basis they won’t work for their students, staff, mission or locality – only to then return to the ranch and implement a pretty uniform solution across their own diverse students, staff, subjects or campuses within their institution.

It’s why I’m instinctively drawn, at least in theory, to the Office for Students’ principles-based and risk-based approaches. The idea isn’t without its problems – if we take John Blake’s new access and participation proposals (for example), it’s entirely possible that two students in two different providers – both with characteristics, mode, and subject, that are below par on outcomes – will end up having that “risk to their equality of opportunity” prioritised differently based on the overall size of the two places and the volume of other issues in those providers. That feels hopelessly unfair.

But on many issues, the idea that we should take a risk-based approach makes lots of sense.

Serious concerns

In the new guidance from Universities UK on information sharing when there are serious concerns about a student’s safety or mental health, the sector looks to have finally (and highly belatedly) cracked an appropriate approach to deciding whether to pick up the phone to families, carers or trusted contacts.

If anything, the yawning hole in the guidance is defining a serious concern, or noticing when there is one.

Simplistically, while a university might engage in policy definitions, dissemination and even training, I can make a case for a department with a Student Staff Ratio (SSR) of 1:35 needing more focus on this issue than one with 1:5. There will be existing levels of competence and willingness to engage in the agenda to assess, and different students’ characteristics on different programmes to weigh up. I can also argue that certain settings or activities within a programme will need more effort if we’re to notice and respond accordingly. In other words, I think I ought to think about risk.

Similarly if I was thinking about harassment or sexual misconduct, my key conclusions from the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture case would be to reason that not all parts of a university, and not all students, are likely to feel as able as others to raise their head above the parapet and make a complaint or raise a concern.

Where it’s abuse, it’s going to be harder to challenge and easier to cover up, there obviously should be more focus on building the confidence of potential victims to take action than in other parts of a university where a simpler approach of a poster campaign and general information about process might match the risk profil of an issue. It’s also obvious that if research tells us particular communities of students are less likely to report, there should be bespoke approaches with bespoke theories of change.

As this teriffic paper on researching students’ experiences of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment points out, proper prevalence surveys create the ability to generate and analyse data on specific sub-populations – and as this paper reminds us,

Because rates of victimisation reflect wider patterns of disadvantage, oppression, and abuse, it is also clear that factors such as race, disability, sexuality, and ethnicity intersect to create further differential exposure to risk.

What’s interesting about most of the issues that I have in mind here is that they are at least adjacent to, if not directly related to, equality and diversity generally and equality of opportunity specifically. And in the context of those new APP proposals from the Office for Students, that is where things get interesting.

Raised expectations

As well as the strict(ish) access and participation brief, Blake is also responsible for wider EDI work – the “statement of expectations” on harassment and sexual misconduct is in his remit, as is the Disabled Students’ Commission. On the former of those, it would be very odd given the casework if the SoE was finally converted into regulation, and large providers weren’t told to adopt a risk-based approach internally to ensure particular departments, activities or students are targeted.

And if OfS was ever to involve itself in learning from the Abrahart case, it would know that there are plenty of Disabled students who have similar outcomes to other students, but have different opportunities to others – because the discrimination (and the “risk”) often manifests principally in day to day treatment rather than graduate outcomes rates.

It is going beyond a strict focus on the three outcomes of progression, completion and continuation that is allowing Blake to cause a regulatory focus on assessing the effort, rather than the actual attainment, of work on raising attainment in schools. But that partly political contortion – of not talking so much about outcomes and focussing instead on risks to equality of opportunity – does mean that unless the same approach is taken to the rest of his brief, the overall approach risks being meaningless.

If we were to just take the duties that providers have under the Equality Act – which Blake noted in his presentation on APP as being closely related to and overlapping with APP work – there’s a case for adopting a risk based approach for the reasons I describe above. In most providers most Disabled students are at a higher risk of not being able to access their teaching and learning than others, and dedicated risk mitigations should be identified, committed to and delivered.

But more broadly, if a university did as Blake suggested and said to students “what do you reckon are the biggest risks to equality of opportunity here at Learnchester”, I can pretty much guarantee that they’re not going to gravitate to the sorts of issues represented in even a reformed OfS access and participation dashboard.

They’re going to point to international students not being able to rent a room, to Black students having their hair played with, to rich students being able to pay off library fines, to Commuter students missing out campus-centred social activity, and Deaf students not being able to book a signer because the timetable changed.

Opportunities for change

They are, in other words, going to do what Blake isn’t meaning to point to but is having to to avoid saying outcomes – they’ll think about the opportunities that higher education offers and whether everyone gets to experience them equally. And that matters – because while there is some relationship between the two, it’s not always simplistically so – and it’s perfectly possible for a student to be unlawfully failed under the Equality Act but still battle through and get a First or fancy graduate job.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE) is good at this – in its case it repeatedly argues that students should expect both the learning outcomes they deserve, and the learning opportunities their funding is supposed to pay for and that they were promised. Why would OfS only worry about one end of the see-saw?

When it comes to issues like the one in this blog – highlighting that most universities don’t analyse the make up of those involved in (academic or wider) disciplinary cases – there should be an answer. And when it comes to the example in that paper I referenced above of a university gathering sexual violence prevalence data and then shelving its publication or discussion for reputation reasons needs a regulatory response, I have a simple view of the regulatory objective – it needs to be riskier for a university to bury results like that than to publish them.

Adopting a risk-based approach to opportunities and equality compliance will be controversial – it will involve gathering perception and prevalence data from students and staff, and being internally institutionally honest about the areas where focus should be, given the different sized and shaped-risks. It will also involve pointing out to people that lead departments or student groups or activities that they are leading a pocket of risk. The President of Men’s Rugby won’t like it. But it will be worth it.

Blake already has the powers under HERA to go down this road. So if he really cares about equality, causing universities to adopt a risk-based approach over opportunities rather than just renaming outcomes to get through a meeting with a minister is now the only sensible approach to take.

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