Universities can help drive change on sexual harassment

Universities could have an important role to play in driving a cultural change regarding sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour, according to Janet Beer, president of Universities UK or UUK, the vice-chancellors’ body, referring to the proliferation of reports of sexual harassment in public life since the Harvey Weinstein revelations were published.

Both around the world and in the United Kingdom, where the cabinet and parliament have been engulfed by claims of improper behaviour by ministers and MPs, there has been an outpouring of testimonies by alleged victims of sexual assault or misconduct in recent weeks.

Speaking at a UUK conference on sexual harassment on Wednesday, Beer said: “Every day we are hearing shocking new examples of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour emerging from locations from Hollywood to Westminster and in many sectors besides.

“We know that no industry or sphere of life is immune from the challenges resulting from such conduct, so as well as dealing with our own cultural issues, perhaps higher education could have an important role to play in driving wider cultural change in our society.

“This is what we should be aspiring to in our universities.”

But she warned universities that having policies and strategies to address sexual harassment was not enough. The strategies need to be accompanied by activities to support cultural change in universities.

Beer said these could take many forms such as:
  • • Obtaining a visible commitment from senior leaders to removing barriers to cultural change.

  • • Understanding the barriers to changes in staff behaviour and delivering training to staff in order to support cultural change.

  • • Providing an environment that will encourage students to report.
Beer said the report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students, Changing the Culture, published a year ago, marked just the start of the work in this area. A UUK case studies directory, published in the summer, shows that universities have responded in a range of innovative ways to address the issue.

Further guidance on embedding cultural change will be developed by Professor Alison Phipps at the University of Sussex with outcomes due to be disseminated at the UUK’s conference in November 2018.

Beer said: “We want students and staff to feel confident that we take these issues seriously. And we want them to report incidents of this nature so that universities can take action.

“We know that many incidents go unreported and so, an increase in reporting does not mean an increase in the number of incidents. It means students and staff are feeling more comfortable about coming forward – something which should be considered a measure of success in removing barriers to disclosure in our universities and something which will provide universities with the information they need to best target preventative interventions."

More systematic

Beer said all students are entitled to a safe and positive experience and all universities have a duty to provide that outcome, and students’ unions and universities have long been working together to address these issues.

However, the UUK taskforce found that institutions could be more systematic in their approaches and that not every university had all the necessary building blocks in place for effective prevention and support. More needed to be done to create a safe and inclusive environment.

She said the taskforce’s guidelines were designed to serve as a catalyst for universities to think carefully about how they can make their institutions safer places to live, work and study; and it is clear that “a real step change has occurred”.

She said the examples in the UUK directory of case studies showed that universities are working hard to implement a culture change. It documents a wide range of innovative practices that are being embedded across the sector. Examples include the improvement of incident reporting practices; campaigns to empower students using bystander initiatives; and programmes to support cultural change.

She said safeguarding students and staff is crucial to the mission of universities to be a force for good in society.

“Students can only perform to their full potential in an environment which models and promotes respectful and responsible behaviours. If students do not feel safe, are being bullied or experience sexual harassment, this will impact on their physical and mental health, their social life and their academic experience.

“And the same of course applies to staff – if a university wants to recruit and retain world-class academics, providing an environment that is welcoming and inclusive is critical.”

Following the launch of the Changing the Culture report, UUK worked to promote the report and its recommendations to members and initiated activities to support the sector in implementing the recommendations.

UUK held a workshop earlier this year with LimeCulture – specialists in addressing sexual violence – to explore developing an overarching strategy for responding to sexual violence. LimeCulture has worked with a range of universities in developing an institution-wide approach.

UUK has also published the Pinsent Masons guidance to replace the Zellick report – previously the key guidance on how universities should respond to sexual assault and rape – regarding dealing with student behaviour which may constitute a criminal offence.

UUK has been exploring the sector’s efforts to implement the new guidance. At a roundtable discussion in April this year it was clear that although some institutions had already developed action plans to implement the guidance, further support was needed to translate the recommendations in the guidance into institutional practice – particularly in terms of ensuring that any actions taken by an institution would not contravene any legal process.

UUK is now working with Coventry University to develop a case-management process for universities. This is a critical aspect of the implementation of the Pinsent Masons guidance. The process will aim to embed a culture of safety for students, while at the same time enabling the institution to capture vital data and facilitate support, Beer said.

Staff to student conduct

UUK has also been looking at how to address staff to student, or student to staff, sexual harassment and misconduct – an issue not covered in the original report. Indeed, one of the recommendations made by the taskforce was that UUK should look in more depth at this issue, Beer said.

In June this year, Nicola Dandridge – former chief executive of UUK and chair of the taskforce – chaired a roundtable discussion with university managers, academics and sector practitioners on staff student harassment and sexual misconduct.

“This raised a number of interesting points, including the lack of understanding, or misunderstanding, of what is meant by sexual misconduct and about professional behavioural expectations among some students and staff, and the lack of visibility on the existence and effectiveness of individual institutional policies to address staff student sexual misconduct,” Beer said.

In response to this, UUK agreed to work with sector experts to provide guidance on addressing these issues.

This discussion also highlighted the importance of institutional culture, she said.