English regulator demands ‘urgent action’ on sexual harassment

Office for Students calls for universities to review sexual misconduct policies by summer, following publications of thousands of claims of abuse across sector

April 19, 2021
Nicola Dandridge
Nicola Dandridge

England’s regulator has demanded “urgent action” from universities on their harassment and sexual misconduct policies, after thousands of claims of sexual abuse were published on a website.

The Office for Students said universities must review their policies by the end of the summer and issued guidance on how to make their systems more effective at preventing harassment and supporting students who reported incidents.

It comes after thousands of testimonies of sexual harassment and abuse at UK universities were published on the Everyone’s Invited campaign website, which had previously revealed the widespread abuses experienced by school pupils.

The site named 123 universities that have been mentioned in submitted testimonies, though the website emphasised that “rape culture exists in all universities”.

Many institutions were mentioned repeatedly. The University of Exeter was mentioned at least 65 times, while others with at least 50 mentions were the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Leeds.  

The OfS said it had set out new guidelines because it expected all students within all institutions to “be protected from harassment and sexual misconduct from other students, staff and visitors”.

Alongside sexual misconduct, the statement also covers harassment connected to a range of other characteristics, such as race, religion, disability and sexual orientation.

The guidance says universities need to ensure they have processes in place to allow students to report any incidents, make clear how they could do this and tackle any barriers to reporting.

They also must have a “fair, clear and accessible approach to taking action”. The OfS said it would anticipate providers investigating – as a disciplinary matter, for example – complaints made in relation to “any of its registered students”.

It also says that disciplinary hearings must be conducted by a panel that is free from bias and diverse and includes student representatives where appropriate. 

Universities must provide support for students regardless of whether a formal report or complaint is made, the OfS adds.

The regulator says it expects institutions to have “visible and ongoing commitment” from senior leaders and the governing body to preventing and responding to all forms of harassment.

There must be a clear statement of behavioural expectations for students, staff and visitors, and what the possible sanctions are for not following them. This should be easily accessible, according to the OfS, which also calls for staff and student training.

In a blog post, Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said that even before the latest revelations, there had been several inquiries and reports exploring these issues over the past decade.

“Despite some improvements, progress has been uneven. We still see a lack of consistent and effective systems, policies and procedures across the sector,” she writes.

“As a result, students continue to report worrying cases that have not been properly addressed by their university or college. Using this statement of expectations as a yardstick can go a long way to ensuring students have confidence that cases of harassment and sexual misconduct will be properly addressed.”

Ms Dandridge said that at this stage the OfS was not formally connecting this statement of expectations to specific conditions of registration, but it would be considered over the next year.

“Dealing effectively with harassment and sexual misconduct – wherever it may occur – will require action, commitment and collaboration. The result should be that meaningful support is provided to students when they need it, and that all incidents are dealt with effectively and sensitively.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Whilst it is indeed concerning that so many people are reporting harassment or incidents of sexual assault, I also query just what a university is expected to actually do. They are not the police! Anyone who believes that an offence has been committed should be reporting it to the police, all that a university should be doing is supporting the victim as they do so... not investigating the matter for themselves. Apart from not having the skills to do so, they run the real risk of impacting the chances of a successful prosecution of wrong-doers. Harassment on the basis of protected characteristics and sexual assault are already illegal. Should universities also have policies about obeying other laws such as paying your tax and abiding by the speed limit when driving?