GDPR should not prevent reporting on complaints, universities told

Blanket policies restricting even the victims being told about the outcome of complaints should be scrapped, report finds

July 25, 2022
A woman with "stop" written on her palm, symbolising harassment
Source: iStock

Data protection concerns should not preclude UK universities from being more open about how they deal with harassment complaints from staff and students, according to new guidance.

Universities UK has called for a change in the culture in how such complaints are approached amid concerns that a lack of transparency will put people off reporting harassment and damage confidence in the overall process, with some believing nothing is being done.

A guide – produced with Coventry University – has urged universities to move away from blanket policies that prevent the sharing of complaint outcomes and instead approach each case separately, with the confidence to share information “as long as it is reasonable and legally appropriate.”

It reflects the findings of a stakeholder group that was set up after a 2019 Equality and Human Rights Commission report that noted many universities felt their ability to share information relating to outcomes and sanctions in complaints was limited by data protection concerns.

Among the other key recommendations of the report – which has been shared with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees data protection legislation in the UK – are that universities should be more transparent in how cases are handled and manage the expectations of everyone involved about what they can expect from the process and what information might be shared.

Policies may need to be updated to inform people that personal data may be disclosed in some circumstances as part of the procedure for dealing with complaints, the report noted.

“It takes great courage for an individual to report an incident of harassment and it is vital they feel they have achieved something by coming forward,” said Professor David Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of the stakeholder group.

He added that the guidance was intended to “empower universities to make informed, considered and appropriate decisions to share personal data while complying with data protection legislation”, something he said was “critical” in encouraging more people who have been victims of harassment to speak out.

How harassment complaints have been dealt with has become a key issue for universities after the global #MeToo movement shone a light on how prevalent these types of incidents are within institutions. In 2021, more than 16,000 students posted anonymously on the website Everyone’s Invited, naming 80 UK universities where they said they had been victims of sexual harassment, abuse, misogyny and assault.

Several reports since have found that university students and staff members are more likely to be victims of harassment than in the wider population, while critics say the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements by universities to prevent details about misconduct allegations being shared publicly has created a culture of secrecy.

“We must send an unwavering message to students and staff that any form of harassment will not be tolerated – but some current practice undermines confidence in that commitment,” Professor Richardson said.

The report states that a victim may have concerns for their safety, or the safety of others, if the response and action taken in response to a complaint is not explained.

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