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Universities to share more information on the outcomes of harassment cases

teacher looking over students shoulder at work

Universities should be more transparent in how they handle and respond to harassment complaints made by students and staff; and willing to share more information about the outcomes of those complaints where possible.

This is the headline recommendation from guidance released today on the sharing of personal data in harassment cases by Universities UK (UUK), developed in partnership with Coventry University, which aims to stop concerns around data protection law being a barrier to effective complaints handling.

In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that many universities felt that their ability to share information relating to outcomes and sanctions in complaints was limited by data protection concerns.

Today’s guidance argues that data protection legislation should not automatically prevent universities from sharing such information with individuals who have made a complaint. Instead, universities are asked to approach each case individually, with the confidence to share information as long as it is reasonable and legally appropriate in the circumstances.

Withholding information on complaint outcomes can impact a victim’s willingness to formally report an incident, as they may lack confidence that doing so will lead to a fair and effective response. They may even have concerns for their safety, or the safety of others, if the response and action taken is not explained.

Professor David Richardson, Vice-Chancellor, University of East Anglia, who chaired the wider stakeholder group that supported the work, said:

“It takes great courage for an individual to report an incident of harassment and it is vital they feel they have achieved something by coming forward.

“We hope this guidance will empower universities to make informed, considered and appropriate decisions to share personal data while complying with data protection legislation. This is critical if we are to encourage more victim-survivors to speak out.

“We must send an unwavering message to students and staff that any form of harassment will not be tolerated – but some current practice undermines confidence in that commitment.”

Specific recommendations outlined to help university leaders shift the culture within their institutions on these matters include:

  • Avoid blanket refusals to share information on outcomes and challenge the perception that such blanket refusals are necessary under data protection legislation
  • Take more case appropriate decisions, depending on the specific facts of the case
  • Be more transparent in how cases are handled, and manage the expectations of everyone involved about what they can expect from the process and what information might be shared
  • Update public policies to reflect that personal data may be shared in some circumstances relating to harassment complaints

The guidance also includes practical advice and a tool to support universities when deciding whether to share personal data and if so, what data to share, along with a template for documenting such decisions.

UUK has consulted with the Information Commissioner’s Office on the guidance and the regulator has welcomed the framework as a mechanism that can support universities in deciding whether to share personal data.

Scenario example:

Suzie, a university student, makes a report to her university’s harassment case manager about an incident of  racial harassment carried out by another student (the “responding party”) on her course. Suzie provides evidence to support the university’s investigation into the incident, and is supported by the university’s harassment case manager and health and wellbeing team. The eventual outcome of the investigation results in Suzie’s complaint being upheld, and the responding party leaving the university following the internal disciplinary process.  Whilst Suzie remains unaware of this outcome, she has concerns for her safety and is worried that her complaint has not been taken seriously.  This has an significant impact on her health and wellbeing, she has expressed concerns about her safety if the responding party remains on campus and is considering leaving her course.   In this scenario, the guidance suggests that information that the responding party will not be returning to campus is, on balance, something that could be shared with Suzie. 

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