Universities must offer ‘joined-up’ response on harassment and abuse

UUK report brings together best practice for combating abusive behaviour

October 21, 2016
Damaged sculpture
Source: Alamy

Universities UK has published recommendations for institutions on dealing with violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting students.

At the request of the government, Universities UK set up a task force of university leaders, student representatives and academic experts to examine how universities are responding and how they could do better. The results have now been published as Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce Examining Violence against Women, Harassment and Hate Crime Affecting University Students.

UUK “sought evidence from its members to capture existing activity underway across the sector” and received responses from 60 British universities.

It also considered parallel developments in the US, “where the development of policies and initiatives to prevent and tackle sexual assault is further developed than in the UK”, and programmes such as Universities Australia’s new “Respect. Now. Always” campaign, which “focuses on raising awareness, providing clear support pathways and encouraging a zero-tolerance stance on sexual assault and harassment”.

“Despite some positive activity,” the UUK report argues, “university responses are not as comprehensive, systematic and joined-up as they could be.”

Furthermore, much of the good work “has not been widely shared”, so the report proposes that UUK “should publish a directory of case studies and templates based on what the sector is already doing (to include reference to international resources and activities)”.

In the meantime, the report offers a number of recommendations.

Serious attempts to address issues of harassment and hate crime undoubtedly require “a commitment from senior leadership”, it says.

Universities should also “involve their students’ union in developing, maintaining and reviewing all elements of a cross-institution response”. They need to develop “robust strategies”, both to “prevent incidents from happening in the first place” and to “provide an effective response” when they do occur.

Universities should build partnerships with groups such as “the police, community leaders and specialist services”, which can be “vital in supporting students, ensuring staff are well trained and assessing the nature and scale of the issues affecting students at a given time”, the report says. And, as a way of “facilitating a culture of zero tolerance”, they should also consider “bystander initiative programmes” – designed to stop people turning a blind eye to any abuses they witness.

In developing its argument, Changing the Culture includes a number of case studies. The University of Cambridge, for example, “has been influenced by the experience of American universities, particularly Yale” in implementing “a new procedure for consideration of cases where one student alleges sexual assault or rape by another student”. This involves “close collaboration with undergraduate and graduate student representatives from the university, and discussions with the local police”, the report says.

Other case studies featured in the report include the Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force, Nottingham Trent University’s “dignity and respect” policy, Coventry University’s partnership with a local rape crisis centre and the British Universities and Colleges Sport’s “Take A Stand” campaign.

The University and College Union described the report as “a timely reminder for all universities to revisit policies in these areas and prioritise work that keeps staff and students safe”, adding that “areas such as online abuse needed urgent attention”.

Meanwhile Anna Bull, a spokeswoman for the 1752 Group, set up to campaign for more action to tackle sexual harassment of students by staff, welcomed the UUK report’s recognition of this as “a significant issue which must be addressed by the sector”.

She said the group “look[ed] forward to working with UUK and the sector more widely to address staff-student sexual harassment in the coming months and years. This is a sector-wide problem, which needs a sector-wide solution. This report is the first step in opening up discussions towards such an approach.” 


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