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Partnership working is key to combatting sexual harassment in higher education

In 2016, Universities UK (UUK) published the Changing the Culture taskforce report, with recommendations on dealing with sexual harassment for universities to embed within their policies and processes.

However, earlier this month a national student survey by Revolt Sexual Assault revealed that this is still a significant issue, with findings that 70% of female students have experienced sexual harassment, and just under 1 in 10 (8%) have been raped, at university. The higher education sector has been criticised for being complacent on this issue.

Delegates attended Salford Professional Development’s Combatting Sexual Harassment in Higher Education conference to gain a better understanding of the risks that students face, the legal responsibilities of institutions in relation to handling complaints and supporting victims, and to share best practice to address this problem.

 UUK released a new report today, looking at the progress made since 2016. It highlights that “significant but variable” progress has been made across the sector.

“At the moment, universities are all doing different things. Some are doing very good work to address sexual harassment on campus, while others are engaging is bad practice, like failing to record incidents. This is to avoid freedom of information requests and potential reputational damage,” said Andrew Wootton, director of the ProtectED the first national accreditation scheme for student safety, security and wellbeing.

The ProtectED Code of Practice measures to address harassment and sexual assault embed all UUK recommendations, and go further to address staff-to-student sexual harassment and cyberbullying. The scheme requires member universities to have all measures in place, which is assessed by peer review and trained ProtectED assessors.

Andrew, a researcher from the University of Salford, explained that the ProtectED scheme aims to “raise national standards in student support, and address the fragmented approach that is currently letting students down.” Members can also share good practice in ProtectED Exchange forum, working together to find preventative solutions.

The UUK report also identifies that “active senior leadership in this area” seems to be vital to the success of implementing the recommendations.

Durham University discussed their prevention and response initiatives, including the Sexual Violence Task Force which was set up by their Pro-VC. “If these initiatives and policies are not seen at the highest levels of a university, they won’t work,” said Sam Dale, director of student support and wellbeing.

Since introducing their new sexual violence and misconduct policy, Durham have recorded the second highest number of cases over seven years (of those universities who are actively collecting and sharing this data). Sam explained that this is a sign of cultural change: “We see the high number of disclosures as a good thing; it means that we are providing the tools to help students disclose, that there is trust there.”

Carys Page, wellbeing project officer from Loughborough University, also emphasised the need for top-level endorsement, and student involvement, to ensure an effective whole university approach to tackling sexual violence.

The NUS Hidden Marks report found that students were the perpetrators in most incidents of student sexual harassment, and Carys has been leading Loughborough’s work to educate students on issues around sexual consent. Their nationally recognised Consent Week initiative included promotional posters bearing the images of prominent student figures, and their VC Professor Robert Allinson with the tagline “I’m talking about consent. Are you?”

UUK’s recent report also touched upon their activities to facilitate the sharing of good practice between universities.

David Malpas, Director of Student Affairs from Middlesex University, explained: “We are currently working with the University of Liverpool and St Andrews University to share practice on how we implement the Universities UK / Pinsent Masons Guidance for Higher Education Institutions.”

The guidance assists universities in handling incidents of alleged student misconduct which may also constitute a criminal offence. “We are working with other universities to develop a toolkit for the sector. UUK have provided an intern to help us analyse the data that we collect. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other universities and groups, and engage in partnership working to address these issues,” said David.

More information on our upcoming Enhancing Student Experience Conference is available – here.

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