Why is progress on keeping students safe so slow?

When the Office for Students (OfS) first published its draft statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct back in January 2020, it already felt like a project on the go slow.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It had been prevaricating over its role in student safety since its inception – and while I won’t go into the full history here, I will note that following NUS’ Hidden Marks report in 2008 and a Universities UK’s resultant (and reluctant) task force seven years later, a progress report from 2018 had found a fifth of providers had made “very limited” progress in meeting recommendations, a 2019 update found progress to be “variable”, and an Advance HE assessment that year of funded projects found that “concern remained” at senior levels the potential for reputational damage over initiatives to tackle hate crime and harassment.

By January 2020, OfS found that progress in adopting UUK’s recommended approaches was “slow and not widespread or consistent” across the sector, and that there was a “significant level of variation” in the response by providers, including by their leadership and governance teams. So its publication of its statement of expectations – that itself had been further delayed by the General Election – at least felt like we were inching towards a standard rather than a complex web of variable practice.

Bizarrely, having watched Universities UK set some voluntary standards and not achieve rapid progress or universal compliance, it then decided to adopt that approach itself. So now, 34 months on, it feels especially frustrating that today we have a press release that shows – surprise surprise – that an independent evaluation reckons progress has been “inconsistent and slow”. You don’t say.

Today’s Insight brief discusses the existing evidence on sexual misconduct and its prevalence and impact in higher education – reminding us that studies suggest many students do not disclose sexual misconduct to their college or university, giving us data on the groups of people who are most affected by sexual misconduct, and explaining some of the steps higher education providers are taking to address the issue. The problem? Most of the material is remixed from a chapter in the consultation document from January 2020.

To be fair, the SUMS Consulting report does move the debate(s) on in a number of ways. Having consistently rejected the collation of stats in this space, the report provides the evidential basis for OfS action on prevalence and reporting data that was announced a few weeks ago – arguing that there should be “more of a focus on output and outcome measures” as there is in every other corner of Nicholson House.

Tackling staff-student misconduct and online harassment are recommendations that have been floating around for years, so it’s good to see them in. And while it’s good to see issues of jurisdiction highlighted – covering the need to protect students at partner providers or on overseas or work placements, and cases where students come from two different institutions – it’s also maddening that we’re still no further forward on resolving those issues.

In the new year we’ll get details of the formal statutory consultation on the statement as a piece of dedicated regulation and details on how OfS is going to pull off decent prevalence data at provider level. That will all take a while, and then because the sector is diverse and because the regulator has “stretch pants” principles rather than “one size fits all” prescriptions, it will take a few years of casework yet to actually work out what “consistency” means in practice.

One thing that has emerged in the prevalence research work is that it looks like OfS is intending to try to avoid including other forms of Equality Act harassment in that exercise. The politics of the regulator being seen to survey students on microaggressions would obviously be difficult given the hostile political climate, but it would be pretty outrageous if racial harassment is somehow formally relegated in the hierarchy of discrimination. It will also be painful to watch OfS attempting to avoid mentioning those sorts of “risks to equality of opportunity” in its proposed EORR in the new year.

In refamiliarising myself with the January 2020 consultation, I was reminded of paragraph 6 and 7 – which told us both that “rules on harassment cannot be used to undermine existing legal protections for academic freedom” and that OfS’ “regulatory remit does not extend to intervention in individual student cases to provide resolution or redress”. The Free Speech Bill will change the latter, and drag the new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom into individual complaints about the former. Complex times ahead.

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