Zero tolerance to sexual violence required on campus

Universities should embed a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence, harassment and hate crime, highlighting up-front the behaviours that are expected from all students, as well as ensuring staff understand the importance of fostering a zero-tolerance culture.

Working with students’ unions, universities should take an institution wide approach to tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime and carry out a regular impact assessment of their approach, according to recommendations by a Universities UK task force published on 21 October.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK or UUK and chair of the task force, said: “The university sector has been clear that there is no place for sexual violence, harassment or hate crime on a university campus, nor anywhere else.

“The impact of any such incident on a student is so potentially serious that universities must be ready to respond effectively and proactively engage in prevention initiatives.”

However, the report has been criticised for inadequately addressing staff-to-student sexual harassment.

The task force, set up last year, consisted of university leaders, student representatives and academic experts. The group considered violence against women, harassment in all its forms and hate crimes, but focused particularly on issues of sexual violence and harassment.

The task force's report, Changing the Culture – which has been circulated to all universities – makes a series of recommendations on addressing these issues through effective prevention and response.

Other recommendations include that universities should develop a clear and accessible response procedure and centralised reporting system for dealing with incidents of violence, harassment or hate crime, working with relevant external agencies where appropriate.

To help improve responses, UUK should hold an annual conference for the next three years to share good practice related to the recommendations, the task force says.

In addition UUK should work with relevant bodies such as the National Union of Students, Jisc (the sector’s not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions) and Reclaim the Internet to assess what further support is needed to tackle the growing problem of online harassment and hate crime.

The publication outlining guidelines*, published alongside the report, says the relationship between universities and students is primarily governed by contract and students are recognised as consumers under consumer legislation. The handling of incidents of student misconduct and the imposition of disciplinary sanctions must therefore be seen in the context of the contractual relationship between the university and the student.

It therefore recommends that institutions:
  • • Publish a code of conduct which sets out the types of behaviours that are unacceptable; makes it clear that any such behaviour will amount to a breach of discipline; and provides an indication of the sanctions which may be imposed on students in relation to any such breaches;
  • • Publish a disciplinary procedure which includes a list of the sanctions which could be imposed on students;
  • • Ensure that the disciplinary regulations are properly incorporated into the contract by being brought to the student’s attention before the contract is concluded;
  • • Ensure that the disciplinary regulations comply with consumer law by being easy to locate on the university’s web site, accessible, clear, accurate and fair.
Dandrige said: “The evidence showed that while many universities have already taken positive steps to address these issues, university responses are not always as joined-up as they could be. There is more work that can be done to share effective practice across the sector.

She said it is clear that these issues are not isolated to universities and reflect behaviours in society generally, including in schools and local communities.

“UK universities, however, have a significant role to play, and are in a position to lead the way in preventing and responding to violence against women, harassment and hate crime, beyond the boundaries of the university campus.”

Alleged misconduct may be particularly complex for universities to deal with when the conduct may constitute a criminal offence and involves action by one student against another, the guidelines report noted.

In these cases, universities have to fulfil the duties they have to both students, including performing their contractual obligations, applying a duty of care, upholding principles of natural justice, complying with equality law and upholding human rights.

The report includes recommendations about the processes to be followed and factors to be taken into account.

Staff-to-student harassment

The task force also received evidence relating to staff-to-student sexual harassment. UUK said this issue needs to be addressed, along with on-line harassment and hate crimes on the grounds of race. It said it would consult with universities, students and interested groups to assess what more can be done in these areas and what further action is necessary.

However, the fact that the report barely addresses staff-to-student sexual harassment has been criticised by campaigners.

Dr Anna Bull, a spokesperson for the 1752 Group, a UK-based lobby group and consultancy, dedicated to ending sexual exploitation in higher education, described the report as a “weak response” on the issue but said the group welcomes the UUK’s commitment to addressing the issue as a “positive step”.

The group made a submission to the task force urging it to address this problem, which though relatively hidden is “likely to be widespread”, according to Bull, who is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She points to research in the United States that shows that one in six (15.8%) female graduate students experienced sexual harassment from a teacher or advisor.

According to investigations by the Guardian, the extent of sexual harassment of students by staff in UK universities is hidden by the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases.

Bull told University World News that a key problem in the UK is that there hasn’t been any research into the problem since 1998, which makes it difficult for UUK to make recommendations.

“But research has to happen. UUK said it would be one of the first steps and we will be holding them to that.”

Graduate students vulnerable

Bull, who provides support to survivors of sexual violence, said sexual harassment by staff is a particular problem among graduate students because of the one-to-one nature of the professional relationship.

Due to the power balance between supervisors and students there can be subtle forms of harassment – from staff trying to turn teaching supervision meetings into dates, to attempts to sexualise encounters.

“It could be anything from the more subtle, which can make students feel vulnerable and unable to access teaching they are entitled to, to something more serious,” she said, referring to sexual assault.

“But even less serious offences can have serious long-term effects causing withdrawal from studies or a feeling that ‘I must only have got the place on the course because of how I look, not my ability’, which leads to loss of confidence and isolation. It is a problem of attrition, or non-completion, because students disappear,” she said.

Dr Ann Olivarius, senior partner at McAllister Olivarius, a law firm that represents people who have been sexually harassed in the US and UK, said: “We are encouraged to see staff-student sexual harassment on the agenda and hope now the much needed work in this area can begin. Most universities have no effective mechanism to stop staff (or students) from pressuring students into sexual relationships and when it happens, any sort of disciplinary action is pretty much non-existent.

“Academics face few penalties for pressuring their students for sex. Those in charge of faculty discipline are often colleagues who have many incentives not to intervene. Until there are mechanisms for trying to reduce harassment, and penalising those who do it, the problem will continue.”

The 1752 Group was formed following scandals at Sussex University and Goldsmiths, University of London earlier this year, where staff allegedly harassed students, and is seeking in the long term a binding code of conduct for staff members. Bull says universities could have something similar to the code for doctors, under which they can be struck off for having a relationship with a patient.

“It’s about knowing what the professional boundaries look like between students and staff,” she says.

In the short term the group says there is a need for research, particularly into best practice guidelines on policy, procedure and support.

*Guidance for Education Institutions: How to handle alleged student misconduct which may also constitute a criminal offence (Universities UK).