UUK panel: handling of sexual assault complaints must be reviewed

Campaigners believe 1994 Zellick guidelines may be at odds with equalities and human rights legislation

March 17, 2016
Demonstrator wearing 'It's a dress, not yes' placard
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The guidelines that shape how universities deal with complaints about sexual harassment and violence against women need to be reviewed, a Universities UK review has concluded.

A task force set up amid growing concern about sexual assault and “lad culture” said that the 1994 Zellick guidelines, which established the principle that higher education institutions should report serious alleged offences to police and not attempt their own investigations, should be updated to reflect legal and societal changes.

The report by Graham Zellick, who was then principal of Queen Mary University of London, followed an internal investigation at King’s College London into an allegation of rape that was branded a “kangaroo court”.

But it is now thought that the principles established by the Zellick guidelines are at odds with subsequent equalities and human rights legislation, which appears to impose a duty on universities to investigate such breaches.

Leading institutions have been criticised for not systematically recording allegations of rape and other assaults, and the National Union of Students has argued that the guidelines focus on protecting institutions rather than supporting victims.

The task force said that the guidelines, which are not statutory, also needed updating to take account of the role of social media in relationships and alleged harassment.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK and chair of the task force, said that members had undertaken “careful examination” of the Zellick principles.

“The evidence submitted to the task force was overwhelming in its view that, while the guidelines have some place in supporting universities, there is a need for them to be refreshed to reflect the changes that have taken place over the 22 years since the original guidelines were written,” she said.

Last year, the University of Cambridge updated its disciplinary guidelines to allow students to formally report allegations of sexual assault to the institution for the first time.

The UUK task force, which includes university and students’ union leaders among its membership, is not due to publish its final report until the autumn.

But UUK said that other key themes were likely to include the need for an effective, centralised process for recording incidents and reviewing these data; a “zero-tolerance culture” that “sets clear behavioural expectations and is backed up by student disciplinary regulations”; and appropriate training for staff.

Susuana Amoah, the NUS women’s officer, said she was “really pleased” to hear of the review of the guidelines.

“We hope this review will lead to the creation of a new set of guidelines centring around the welfare of survivors rather than institutional reputation,” she said.


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