Tackling campus sexual misconduct ‘needs actions, not just words’

Change is finally beginning to happen across higher education but campaigners say structural change is needed, not sticking plasters

June 23, 2022
sexual assault, sexual harassment
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Universities must face up to the scale of the problem of sexual misconduct on campuses and should not assume that merely creating a new policy or disciplinary procedure will be enough on its own to tackle the issues, a conference has heard.

Despite widespread concern about the safety of students – and action across the sector in recent years – there are still fears that the structural problems that cause many of the issues are often going unaddressed, speakers told the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference on sexual misconduct.

Cara Aitchison, the Cardiff Metropolitan University vice-chancellor who chairs the Universities UK sexual misconduct advisory group, said guidance published on the issue in March showed change was finally beginning to happen across the sector, but more needs to be done.

Priorities that urgently need to be addressed are the length of time taken to investigate complaints and the poor reporting of the outcomes of those complaints, she said.

The sector is often still “putting sticking plasters on things” and a ground-up approach is needed, according to Fiona Drouet, whose daughter Emily took her own life at the University of Aberdeen after being abused by her boyfriend.

Emily had sought help from the university, but staff had decided no action was needed, which Ms Drouet said was down to various factors including a lack of staff training and no proper signposting for where students could get support.

She has now developed an “Emily Test” that asks “Would your institution have saved Emily’s life?” and is encouraging universities to sign up to the first gender-based violence charter, developed by her charity.

Carolyn Jackson, professor in education research at the University of Lancaster, said her own research – based on interviews with 72 employees at six universities in England – showed that institutions are still underestimating the problem of sexual violence and staff can often minimalise and trivialise it.

“Sexual violence is ubiquitous and normalised in higher education yet many in universities still see it as rare and perpetrated by a few bad apples”, she said.

This approach means that universities assume disciplinary procedures are sufficient to tackle the problems, but this often fails to address the root causes, Professor Jackson added.

Heather Farley, anti-harassment coordinator at SOAS University of London, agreed and said universities were often very keen to get a policy in place but then fail to follow up with a full action plan that will bring about meaningful change. 

Schools are far further ahead in dealing with these issues, mostly because of the presence of a stronger regulator, according to Andy Phippen, professor of IT ethics and digital rights at Bournemouth University.

He said he did not want to see an Ofsted for universities but called for the Office for Students to be given “more teeth” to tackle the issues.

He noted that the body itself says it will not regulate its own “statement of expectations” but will act if informed about issues, yet students have rarely heard of the body and are unaware of this function.

Research he conducted in 2019 with Emma Bond, pro vice-chancellor of research at the University of Suffolk, showed only 43 of 110 universities had a board member with responsibility for safeguarding.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

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Maybe all Universities that have issued ‘policies’ on staff relationships with students, need to have a good, hard look at themselves. These charters for ‘sleeping for students’ have no place in a modern university and conduct issues such as these should be written into contracts. It should be deemed institutionally inappropriate and sanctioned by dismissal. Encouraging predatory behaviour (by not banning it) just creates cultural rot. Sadly many of these episodes, today, are quietly dealt with and suppressed from publicity.

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