Susan Kelly, Partner, Winckworth Sherwood

A recent Radio 4 documentary, File on 4 (17 September 2019), has highlighted the scale of the problem of sexual misconduct in universities. The investigators making that programme sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 157 universities, and received 124 replies. These 124 universities told the BBC they recorded 1,436 allegations of sexual harassment or sexual violence against students in 2018-19, up from 476 in 2016-17.

As is so often the case, we do not know whether this is due to the increased incidence of sexual misconduct or increased reporting – or both – but the increase is striking and worrying.

Behind the statistics are heart-rending stories. One student believes she was raped by a fellow student after her drink had been spiked. She kept this to herself for months, growing increasingly withdrawn and depressed. She suffered panic attacks and struggled to leave her student flat, even attempting suicide.   It was only after she received hospital treatment for her mental health problems that she found the courage to report the incident to the police, and then to the university.

She was offered counselling by the university welfare service, but the wait was several months, and so she felt she had to seek help elsewhere. Later, just when she was starting to recover, she faced such insensitive questioning by two university investigators that she felt she was re-living some of the trauma. It turned out that these two investigators had no experience of dealing with a rape or serious sexual assault and were simply not equipped to handle it.

Back in 2016, Universities UK, which represents 130 of the largest institutions, promised change in response to growing concern about sexual violence on campus. They came up with a series of recommendations to prevent sexual harassment and violence, and to improve the response to victims. One of these was for universities to introduce an approach that involves training students and staff to have the confidence to intervene in inappropriate situations, known as bystander intervention.

Another story emerging from the BBC radio documentary was that of a Cambridge University student whose supervisor sent her inappropriate and sexual messages. She started having panic attacks and was on the point of leaving her course, but she eventually plucked up the courage to complain. She was repeatedly warned that she could face a harassment charge if she told anyone else about the allegations and soon felt like she was the person on trial. There was a disciplinary hearing, at which she asked to give evidence from behind a screen. This was refused and she had to sit just a few seats along from the man she was accusing. Her complaint was upheld, but she hardly felt it had been taken seriously: the supervisor was required to write a very short letter of apology and it was she, not her supervisor, who was effectively banned from certain university buildings.

So what of the Further Education sector?

How confident are you that your college would do better?

The two stories illustrate the two kinds of problem that you may have to face in your further education establishment: sexual misconduct between students and sexual misconduct by a person in authority.

Of course, in Further Education, many students are under 18 and so are “children” for the purposes of the latest statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education (September 2019). The sector is much more tightly regulated, as regards children, than are universities, which, almost exclusively, educate over-18s. It is also uncommon for Further Education to provide accommodation, and so the opportunities for sexual misconduct may be somewhat reduced. However, there is no cause for complacency. As the latest Government guidance states, “Staff working with children are advised to maintain an attitude of ‘it could happen here’ where safeguarding is concerned”. Forms of abuse are proliferating, from cyberbullying to sexting and upskirting to hazing. You may have read about the University of Warwick’s “rape chat” scandal, which involved a private online chat among male students involving threats of rape and other sexual abuse against their female coursemates in graphic and horrifying detail.

The main Further Education representative bodies are GuildHE (who also count universities among their membership) and AOC (who do not). Both seem committed to student mental health and wellbeing, in line with the growth in public concern about this, and the lead taken by some universities. GuildHE published a report, Wellbeing in Higher Education in October 2018 and AOC has produced a mental health and wellbeing resource pack, with 100 of its member colleges having signed up to its Mental Health Charter. But neither organisation appears to offer any guidance on handling allegations of sexual misconduct. That may well be because the government guidance is so comprehensive, and we have seen great examples of safeguarding policies published online by FE colleges, such as the Lambeth College policy on peer to peer abuse, which begins with this statement:

“Peer on peer abuse is a significant issue.  It must never be tolerated, dismissed or ignored.  Whilst it is clear that peer on peer abuse disproportionately affects females and the College must have appropriate support mechanisms in place, males, LGBTQ and SEND learners will also be affected by this issue and staff must be aware of this and prepared to act accordingly.

But the universities also have fine-sounding policies. Attitudes and implementation do not always match up.

Funding is a huge problem. As the AOC wrote to Deputy Mayor for London in August 2018, in response to a consultation on the Skills for Londoners Framework, “chronic underinvestment in further education has left the sector in a precarious position and learners and employers without the range of services they need.” In such a climate, it is tempting to question the value added by a harassment counsellor or specialist training to raise awareness and sensitivity. However, as the recent university experience shows, this is a corner that may be cut only at considerable expense in terms of the student experience and an institution’s reputation. FE institutions are susceptible to FOIA requests just as universities are. At least in the FE sector, the safeguarding infrastructure will be in place, and there is a wealth of guidance available from the context of safeguarding children, much of which could readily be applied to over-18s in further education. But this is not a problem that can safely be ignored by any of us.

Susan Kelly, Partner, Winckworth Sherwood

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