At today’s House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee hearing on attitudes towards women and girls in educational settings, Office for Students (OfS) CEO Susan Lapworth made two big announcements on harassment and sexual misconduct.
First, it will consult on a new condition of registration that will effectively put into regulation the “statement of expectations” that has been out for evaluation for the past few months.
It has also begun work to develop a “prevalence survey” to understand the scale and nature of sexual misconduct affecting higher education students in England.
OfS will consult on the proposed condition in early 2023, and then subject to the outcomes of the consultation, a new condition could be in place before the start of the next academic year. OfS will run a pilot prevalence survey on the same timetable.
The regulation aspect has been a very long time coming, as I’ve discussed on the site before. OfS says that the evaluation, which will be published in November, will apparently show that universities and colleges have taken steps to improve their approach – but that evidence suggests that progress has been inconsistent and too slow, with many students still not knowing what to do if this happens to them, or having a poor experience when they do report incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct to their university.
I’d argue that the current informal SoE is pretty much a bare minimum at this stage – there’s more to do to beef it up, some important things to things to think about when implementing it and, as I argued on the site last week, I think it’s vital that providers are directed to consider using a risk-based approach internally rather than assuming all students are at equal risk and have equal confidence to complain – a fitting way to learn from cases like the Bartlett at UCL.
There also remains the issue of collegiate, franchised, partner and work based harassment and sexual misconduct and provider processes and accountabilities – as well as the problem of small and specialist providers. Let’s hope all of these appear in the wash in November, and during the formal consultation to follow.
Arguably more interesting than this pretty predictable announcement is the decision on a prevalence study. OfS says it will aim to measure the extent of sexual misconduct in higher education to provide reliable data about who is subject to incidents of sexual misconduct, and where and when incidents take place – which it says will help universities to target action to prevent incidents and to know whether their interventions are having a positive impact, as well as providing regulatory intelligence for OfS to inform its work in this area.
OfS will need to be careful on wording, but this broadly feels like good news. Plenty of people in the sector including both my colleague Sunday and I have argued for this step previously – Cardiff Met vice chancellor Cara Aitchison argued against the need for such an approach at a previous hearing in the ongoing inquiry, but this afternoon Lapworth took the opportunity to specifically disagree:
We’re not persuaded by the arguments that say you don’t need prevalence data in the higher education because we know it’s a problem. We agree it’s a problem, but we don’t agree that the absence of prevalence data is okay – because that’s necessary to tell who this is happening to, and the different kinds of students that it’s happening to, but also who the perpetrators are, where it’s happening and when it’s happening to the contexts within this is taking place.
We also got a confirmation that the work will be likely done via a “carefully constructed sampling approach” that is substantial enough to be able to give OfS provider-level data:
We want to draw on the learning from other countries that have run higher education prevalence surveys and the research evidence, and we think that will help universities to understand the patterns in their institution, target their interventions, and then evaluate whether those interventions are working or not.
Web also got a sense of the way in which OfS might look at impact rather than effort:
So we don’t want to set a regulatory requirement that says do more work on systems and processes. We want a regulatory requirement that says actually you have to do what’s necessary to resolve these issues for students. And then… if we can collect prevalence data that gives us a picture across the sector as a whole and an understanding of which kinds of students in which contexts are affected by this, and if we can then see that for individual universities, that lets us target our interventions. So a university with high prevalence and low reporting would perhaps raise concerns for us – and we would want to then understand in detail what was going on there and that would allow us to focus our effort.
There was even a signal on the type of prevention and/or bystander training that OfS might be looking for – and whether it will be compulsory or not:
The committee heard evidence from Dr. Fenton in September that I think was very persuasive in terms of the importance of bystander training, but the importance of really credible training and credible training that 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.