University complaints process ‘failing sexual harassment victims’

Complaints process can drag on for several years and is nearly impossible to challenge, says 1752 Group report

September 26, 2018
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Campaigners have warned that university staff accused of sexual misconduct are being left free to target other victims because of ineffective complaints processes that can drag on for several years and are nearly impossible to challenge.

A report by the 1752 Group, which is working to address staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education, says that some students and early career academics were spending as long as seven or eight years dealing with the alleged offence itself, disciplinary proceedings, and potential retaliation from the staff member involved.

The report, published on 26 September, also highlights the huge amount of labour involved in making a complaint: one alleged victim had to write a 10,000-word complaint, a similar length to an undergraduate dissertation, while another described having to collate 200 pages of evidence to accompany their 12-page report.

The 1752 Group recommends that universities should ensure that their full complaints process should not take longer than a year. At the moment, students are unable to go to the English and Welsh sector ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, until they have exhausted their internal complaints procedure, but the group’s report says this was an “almost insurmountable barrier” because internal systems could include up to four rounds of complaints procedures, each taking up to a year.

The 1752 Group says that students should be able to take their case to the OIA after a year of engaging with the internal complaints system, regardless of whether or not they have received an “end-of-process” letter.

The report, Silencing Students: Institutional Responses to Staff Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education, was based on interviews with 16 students and early career academics in 14 institutions. Strikingly, all but four of the staff members accused of misconduct were reported to have targeted at least one other woman, and in some cases multiple women.

In only one of the cases considered had the staff member allegedly involved lost his job; two had resigned and had found posts abroad, and 12 were still in post.

The report highlights lack of clarity within institutions about which behaviours could be reported, and widespread difficulty in finding the right person who could act on their allegations. Almost all the interviewees said that they were blocked or dissuaded from reporting misconduct, for example by a three-month time limit on reports or by policies that ask victims to approach the alleged perpetrator before making a formal complaint.

Interviewees highlighted the severe effect of the complaints process on their mental and physical health, with concerns sometimes focusing on internal tribunal hearings which were held in the presence of the staff member they had accused. In some cases staff members used this opportunity to “aggressively attack and ‘gaslight’” their accuser, the report says.

And there were also widespread concerns about retaliation from staff members who were accused, including spreading of malicious rumours about the alleged victim, and academic reprisals, such as loss of teaching or authorship rights.

The report recommends that higher education institutions should urgently improve their internal investigations processes, and that the English regulator, the Office for Students, is given the power to sanction universities that do not adequately deal with complaints.

Co-author Anna Bull, senior lecture in sociology at the University of Portsmouth, said: “While there is goodwill from some individual members of university staff, overall there is a very serious lack of institutional processes and preparedness to receive complaints or reports around sexual harassment by staff.

“The fact institutions are not prepared to deal with reports and don’t know what to do means, in effect, they are protecting serial perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence on their staff.”

Yvonne Hawkins, director of teaching excellence and student experience at the OfS, said that universities needed to “make it safe and as straightforward as possible to report sexual misconduct by staff, with policies and processes that enable an effective response”.

“If we identify evidence of suspected systemic breaches or weaknesses in how a higher education provider meets its duty of care towards its students, after further investigation we will not hesitate to take action if necessary to protect students’ interests,” she said.

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