Universities told to set out policies to tackle harassment

Out-Law News | 06 May 2021 | 10:27 am | 3 min. read

The UK’s Office for Students (OfS) has published seven expectations for higher education providers to help them prevent and respond to serious harassment and misconduct affecting students.

The body’s statement of expectations is aimed at improving the way universities and colleges deal with allegations of harassment and misconduct, with an emphasis on putting in place clear policies and better communication and engagement with staff and students.

The publication of the document follows a consultation process last year, as well as guidance from Universities UK (UUK) on changing culture produced in 2016 and 2019, and research by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) into students’ views on the issue. It comes at a time when there is increased focus on harassment and sexual abuse within the education system, with 119 universities named in testimonies from survivors of rape and sexual abuse on the Everyone’s Invited platform.

The OfS said higher education providers should clearly communicate, and embed across the whole organisation, their approach to preventing and responding to all forms of harassment and sexual misconduct affecting students. OfS also set out the expectation that governing bodies should ensure that the provider’s approach to harassment and sexual misconduct is adequate and effective and should ensure that risks relating to these issues are identified and effectively mitigated.

Universities and colleges should appropriately engage with students to develop and evaluate systems, policies and processes to address harassment and sexual misconduct. They should also implement adequate and effective staff and student training with the purpose of raising awareness of, and preventing, harassment and sexual misconduct.

The OfS said providers should have adequate and effective policies and processes in place for all students to report and disclose incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct, and put in place a fair, clear and accessible approach to taking action in response to reports and disclosures.

Students involved in an investigatory process following the disclosure of an incident of harassment or sexual misconduct must have access to appropriate and effective support, both prior to the launch of any formal investigation, during the investigation and following its outcome.

The OfS said meeting the expectations was not currently directly connected to enforcement of providers’ conditions of registration. The framework is due to be reviewed later this year as part of wider work to review and reset the body’s regulatory requirements with relation to students’ rights as consumers and this may result in the OfS creating a more direct connection between the statement of expectations and requirements expressed in conditions of registration in the future, enabling the OfS to use its enforcement powers.

Higher education expert Julian Sladdin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, which assisted UUK on its changing culture guidance, said the statement of expectations was probably overdue as sector driven guidance over the last five years has already identified many of the expectations.

“A number of OfS' expectations reflect the principles that those in the sector who are promoting change, such as UUK, have been working to for a number of years. In particular, many of the expectations are already set out in the UUK Changing the Culture report and guidance provided to institutions in 2016 regarding the handling of serious misconduct issues on campus,” Sladdin said.

Sladdin said despite the lack of a current link to conditions of registration, higher education providers should be reviewing their policies and procedures in light of the statement of expectations. This should be an ongoing process both to continually assure staff and students that an institution is taking all necessary steps to reflect sector guidance and good practice around safeguarding as well as ensuring compliance with OfS' expectations. This is important in meeting an institution's duty of care to its staff and students as well as potentially avoiding the future risk of enforcement action, he said.

However, he said although the statement of expectations referenced recent UUK guidance including its work on online harassment from 2019, it did not appear to put any particular focus on the increasing risks of online harassment, or place any emphasis on the need to have better safeguards around staff and student relationships, which is another area of increasing concern to students.

Sladdin said one of the notable requirements set by the OfS expectations was the need to promote training for staff and students on consent and the raising of awareness of the issues of harassment and sexual misconduct. This is an important part of any prevention strategy and is also timely given concerns raised by students about lack of education around sex and relationships. A poll of over 1,000 students carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in August 2020 found only 27% felt prepared for the reality of sex and relationships and expectations around conduct, and in particular the need to understand sexual consent.

Over half of the students surveyed thought that all students should have to undertake an assessment to show they understood sexual consent before starting a degree, and 51% believed education about sex and relationships should be compulsory for all students.

“This is not new as a number of institutions already have programmes in place to educate their students about consent," said Sladdin. "However, this is not yet widespread across the sector and we would expect this to increasingly be taken up by all providers now in light of OfS's expectations and the outcomes of the HEPI survey, which suggests 58% of students believe that some form of training or assessment to show that a student understands sexual consent should be required when starting a degree."