Policies and strategies not enough to tackle campus sexual harassment

Vice-chancellors must make a sustained commitment to cultural change to ensure that violence, harassment and hate crime on campus are things of the past, writes Janet Beer

November 10, 2017
sexual assault, sexual harassment
Source: iStock

Every day we are hearing shocking new examples of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour emerging from locations from Hollywood to Westminster and in many other sectors. 

We know that no industry or sphere of life is immune to the challenges resulting from such conduct, so as well as dealing with our own cultural issues, perhaps higher education could have an important role to play in driving wider cultural change in our society. This is what we should be aspiring to in our universities. 

All students are entitled to a safe and positive experience and all universities have a duty to provide that outcome. 

This time last year, a report by the Universities UK Taskforce was published to support the sector in tackling gender-based violence, harassment and hate crime affecting students. The evidence that it gathered showed us that institutions could be more systematic than others in their approaches, and that not every university had all the necessary building blocks in place for effective prevention and support. 

In short, more needed to be done to create a safe and inclusive environment. 

The taskforce’s guidelines were therefore designed to serve as a catalyst for universities to think carefully about how they can make their institutions safer places to live, work and study. And it is clear that a real step change has occurred. 

Universities are working hard to implement a culture change. Published case studies provide evidence of a wide range of innovative practices that are being embedded across the sector. Examples include the improvement of incident reporting practices; campaigns to empower students using bystander initiatives; and programmes to support cultural change. 

Students can only perform to their full potential in an environment that  models and promotes respectful and responsible behaviours. If students do not feel safe, are being bullied, or experience sexual harassment, this will affect their physical and mental health, their social life and their academic experience.  

And the same, of course, applies to staff – if a university wants to recruit and retain world class academics, providing an environment that is welcoming and inclusive is critical. 

In June, a round-table discussion with university managers, academics and sector practitioners on staff student harassment and sexual misconduct raised a number of interesting points, including the lack of understanding of what is meant by sexual misconduct; issues about professional behavioural expectations among some students and staff; and the lack of visibility on the existence and effectiveness of individual institutional policies to address sexual misconduct.  

This discussion also highlighted the importance of institutional culture. Having policies and strategies in place to address harassment is not enough. In response, UUK has agreed to work with sector experts to provide guidance on addressing these issues. 

We want students and staff to feel confident that we take these issues seriously. And we want them to report incidents of this nature so that universities can take action. 

In response to the task force report, my university – the University of Liverpool – initiated a Safe and Welcoming Campus Environment Project, led by our director of student administration and support. 

The first phase of this project saw an extensive review and update of our student code of conduct and disciplinary procedures, which now provide more detail on the kinds of behaviour that we consider to be non-academic misconduct. Examples of physical and sexual misconduct, as well as abusive behaviour, health and safety breaches and other forms of misconduct are now outlined and mapped against indicative sanctions. 

The second phase, which is running this year, focuses on responding to and preventing incidents of sexual misconduct by or against students. This involves the development and delivery of comprehensive, multi-tiered training for staff across the university – from in-depth training for those staff who are likely to be directly involved with investigating misconduct cases or supporting students, to guidance and training for student-facing staff who may receive a disclosure of sexual misconduct. 

A sustained commitment to cultural change by university leaders is vital if we want to ensure that violence, harassment and hate crime affecting students are things of the past.

Janet Beer is president of UUK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. This blog is an edited version of a speech given at a UUK conference on tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime.

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Reader's comments (1)

One measure of the success of university communities effectively beginning to tackle sexual violence and misconduct are disclosure and reporting levels. This was a point persuasively made by Janet Beer at the UUK conference on 8th November. We need disclosure and reporting rates to increase very markedly if we are to support our students not only in fully realising their educational potential but also in ensuring that they have access to specialist support should they wish to use it, for example, timely access to counselling and Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs).

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