OfS threatens fines over handling of sexual misconduct cases

Regulator proposes rules that, if breached, could lead to fines for institutions

January 9, 2020
Source: iStock

Universities in England could face fines if they do not ensure that complaints about harassment and sexual misconduct are handled fairly.

A proposed new “statement of expectations” on how institutions should deal with such cases has been published by the country’s regulator, the Office for Students, for consultation with the sector.

Pressure has been increasing for more formal guidelines on how universities should handle complaints of harassment and sexual misconduct in the wake of some high-profile cases in which students did not feel that institutions had dealt properly with accusations.

The OfS’ proposals for what it will expect from universities include that they “should have adequate and effective policies and processes in place for all students to report and disclose incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct”.

There should be “easy to understand information” for students and staff on how to report incidents, an investigation process that is “fair, independent, and free from any reasonable perception of bias” and extra support for those involved in any inquiry, the proposed statement also suggests.

It also includes recommendations around prevention and awareness, such as “clearly set out behavioural expectations” for students and staff and training to prevent incidents and to encourage reporting.

The OfS proposes that it will review the impact on universities’ policies and procedures in the area within two years of any final statement being published.

Under the proposals, universities that fail to meet the expectations put forward by the OfS would risk breaching the regulator’s conditions of registration covering “quality” and “guidance on consumer protection law”. A breach of registration conditions can lead to fines or even an ultimate sanction of being removed from the register.

According to the consultation document, the OfS did consider an option of creating a new registration condition specifically on the issue, but this was deemed not to be “the most proportionate way, in the first instance, to achieve the outcome we are seeking”.

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said that although “many institutions are taking concrete steps to address the issue” and the OfS has funded more than 100 projects to improve best practice, it had “to do more for the students who are still being let down by ineffective procedures and inadequate support”.

“Too often, students say they are not getting the support they need if they suffer this unacceptable behaviour, and that reporting systems are not clear or effective,” Ms Dandridge said.

“Our proposed statement of expectations sets out the basis of fair, clear and robust processes that we expect all higher education providers to have in place to respond effectively to harassment and sexual misconduct. Where we see evidence of serious failings, we have the regulatory powers to intervene.”

The consultation on the proposals will close in March.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

HE providers ought not to be 'investigating' allegations of sexual offences at all - surely it's a police matter?

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