Zero tolerance warnings and legalistic responses won’t stem sexual assault

Victims need the certainty that worries and complaints will be listened to and that investigations will be fair-minded, says Owen Bubbers-Jones

October 29, 2023
A man grabs a defensive woman, illustrating sexual assault
Source: iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

A September report by The Observer gathered evidence of what it described as a “rising tide of sexual assaults” in UK university communities. Concerns are everywhere. A new study by University of Oxford researchers reportedly suggests that one in four female students at the university experienced some form of sexual assault in the previous year.

There’s no doubt that universities have always faced a unique combination of risk factors for sexual harassment and assault because of their role as a host for thousands of young people, many away from home for the first time, living in hothouse communities of new and ever-changing relationships. And while universities’ supposed duty of care towards students keeps growing, the #MeToo age has made more people sensitive to, and willing to openly talk about, inappropriate behaviour.

University leaders – who generally belong to different generations from students – experience the hardest, sharpest edges of the problem when they are obliged to deal with complex and tangled cases that raise questions over contemporary understandings of “consent” – not least in criminal law. Identifying the appropriate burden of proof for sexual harassment or assault (and sometimes both) can be very nuanced and particular to every case.

Allegations and instances of sexual harassment and assault aren’t going away with awareness campaigns and helplines. And while there are sector-wide standards in place, these aren’t enough. There needs to be a new clarity and determination around best practice in investigations: not only shared standards but also shared resources to deal with complex and sensitive cases, keeping in mind both the need for a straightforward, firm response and support for young people going through a traumatic process. This might involve, for example, a hybrid approach, developing internal resources and seconding investigators between institutions, but also maintaining the option to bring in professional investigation expertise when it’s needed.

Universities need urgently to look again at their own policies and processes to ensure that they bear scrutiny. They also need to make sure that any staff taking part in investigations – panel members, chairs and administrators – have the training to ensure that processes are followed correctly and that verdicts, which have significant implications for people’s lives, are made in a way that is as objective and well informed as possible.

To this end, the sector needs to reach agreement in a number of debates. For example, should decision-making processes lean towards an informal approach, or more towards formality, with standard use of legal representation? In the event of an alleged sexual assault, evidence must be gathered and interrogated, but bringing in lawyers can raise the stakes all round. In most cases, they will be unnecessary; universities are simply not equipped to act as a surrogate court, and the prospect of formal, more assertive cross-examination makes people less likely to come forward. There’s also the age-old problem that wealthier people can hire the best legal representation.

A more informal approach is based on making use of internal staff with good people skills, empathy and understanding, backed up by good training and CPD around the specifics. A team grows in confidence and capability over time through sharing best practice both internally and with other universities, identifying where there’s progress and where the challenges are. That includes training around how the effects of trauma (on both sides of a sexual harassment and assault case) can impact on the investigation and panel hearing processes.

For an informal approach to work, the internal investigators, who are carrying out the role alongside their day jobs, need to be given the necessary support, tools and space to do things thoroughly. All panel members and panel chairs must go through a rigorous selection process to ensure suitability and a genuine aptitude – let’s not assume that senior academics are automatically suited to the role. And rather than just assuming that a personal tutor should be involved, extra care is needed when considering whether an investigation should be handled by a man or woman to encourage openness. In the more complex and serious cases, staff may also need to access advice and services from an external investigation provider, on issues such as when and how to liaise most effectively with the police.

Turning the tide of sexual harassment and assault cases will happen only with a change in culture among students. That won’t come from threats and warnings of zero tolerance, but rather from openness and trust: the certainty that worries and complaints will be listened to and that there will be open conversations and a fair-minded investigation.

In other words, it will happen only when everyone knows what is expected from each other, and what will happen if boundaries are crossed. There can be no hiding behind secrecy, fear or privilege.

Owen Bubbers-Jones is a higher education specialist at investigations expert CMP.

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