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Evaluation finds universities need to make more progress tackling sexual misconduct

People sat in lecture room

An independent evaluation of how English universities and colleges are adopting the statement of expectations, set out by the Office for Students (OfS) to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct, finds that much more progress needs to be made. The evaluation is published ahead of consultation proposals for a new condition of registration on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct, which the OfS will publish early in the new year.  

The statement of expectations provides a set of recommendations to support universities and colleges to develop and implement effective systems, policies and processes to prevent and respond to incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct.The evaluation, carried out by SUMS Consulting, found that many recommendations in the statement have been partially implemented, but progress has been inconsistent and slow, and students are not seeing the changes they expect.  

The evaluation is published alongside a new Insight brief, which shows that, although there are significant levels of underreporting of cases of sexual misconduct in the general population, there is limited data focusing specifically on the experience of students. The brief discusses how students who have been subjects of sexual assault may become hypervigilant, avoid leaving their homes and experience deteriorating mental health. Case studies of work universities and colleges have done to address these issues are also included in the brief. 

SUMS Consulting surveyed a representative sample of 100 universities and colleges registered with the OfS to examine how they responded to the statement of expectations. They spoke to students and students’ unions to understand whether, and if so how, things are changing for the better.  

The evaluation found that the statement has led to: 

  • Improvements in the policies, systems and processes that universities and colleges need to tackle this issue 
  • Increased attention to addressing harassment and sexual misconduct, particularly in universities’ senior leadership teams and governing bodies
  • Some excellent practice, including recruitment of specially trained staff to support victims of sexual misconduct; implementation of mandatory bystander and consent training; and work with schools and communities to ensure a joined-up approach to tackle harassment. 

The evaluation also found that progress is inconsistent across the sector, and that there is substantial variation in the approaches of higher education providers. Concerns included: 

  • Some universities and colleges have been slower to prioritise this issue than others
  • A lack of standardised practice across the sector
  • Limited evidence that interventions are being evaluated to identify what works
  • Universities and colleges have prioritised student-to-student sexual misconduct, with more limited interventions in relation to other forms of harassment and sexual misconduct. 

The evaluation concluded that the statement of expectations has resulted in progress, but further regulatory intervention is needed to ensure universities and colleges tackle this issue.  

The OfS will consult on introducing a new condition of registration to prevent and tackle harassment and sexual misconduct.

Find the final report here.

Read the insights here.

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said: 

‘Every student should be able to participate in all aspects of their university experience without being subject to harassment or sexual misconduct. Our statement of expectations was a call to action for universities and colleges to improve their approach to these important issues.  

‘The evaluation reveals that, while progress is being made, self-regulation has not been sufficient to deliver consistent, effective approaches for students across the sector. Students are still not feeling appropriately supported by universities and colleges. This points to the need for a different approach to prevent and tackle harassment and sexual misconduct, which is why we will consult on a new condition of registration next year.  

‘In England and Wales, official data shows that students are over three times more likely than any other group to have been victims of a sexual offence. However, much of the available data relies on self-reporting and does not provide an accurate account of the scale of these issues in higher education. We plan to run a pilot prevalence survey next year to better understand the scale and nature of sexual misconduct within higher education in England. 

‘In the meantime, we encourage all universities and colleges to continue to review and update their approach, drawing on the statement of expectations and the recommendations in the evaluation we have published today.’  

The OfS’s Insight brief discusses the existing evidence on sexual misconduct and its prevalence and impact in higher education. Studies suggest many students do not disclose sexual misconduct to their college or university. Reporting on the statistics available, the brief includes data on the groups of people who are most affected by sexual misconduct as well as the steps higher education providers are taking to address the issue. 

Sector Response

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon said:

“Sexual harassment and misconduct has no place in our world-class universities and, on behalf of every student, I welcome the drive and support from the OfS in tackling this issue.

“In April, we launched a pledge to stop the immoral use of Non-Disclosure Agreements by universities to silence victims of sexual harassment and bullying.

“So far, 74 institutions – covering over 1.5 million students – have signed our pledge and we expect all remaining providers to do the right thing for their students and sign it too.”

Georgina Calvert-Lee, an equality expert at Bellevue Law says: 

‘It is not surprising that universities have more to do to tackle sexual harassment.  It has been a problem on campus for as long as women have been admitted to universities.  The Office for Students’ Statement of Expectations was published amid the rising clamour for action after the Everyone’s Invited website shone a spotlight on the prevalence of unaddressed sexual harassment in education.  The Statement of Expectations admonished universities to do better, through a series of uncontroversial and high-level suggestions, but it did not tell them how to do better or impose any sanction if they did not.  Missing was a detailed explanation of what changes they would have to make to current processes to make them fair and effective.

‘This means that there remain some universities who lack the incentive to change because it is not required.  Most, however, are trying to improve, and some are conscientiously performing excellent and thorough investigations.  However, few of them seem to have taken on board the suggestion that the process be made fair for both a reporting and a responding party, even though this seems like the most basic and uncontroversial expectation of all.  Instead, they still funnel their sexual harassment complaints through their disciplinary procedure, in which the complainant is treated as a witness and third party to the process, without any rights to attend the hearing, know the outcome or appeal the outcome.  While universities are on top of their need to observe the strictures of natural justice with respect to the responding party – the accused – they forget entirely that the reporting party faces a similarly punitive outcome if her complaint is not upheld, and so should be given just as much opportunity to establish the facts and have a say in the process.

‘What needs to be done?  Universities need to scrap their current disciplinary process when it comes to sexual harassment complaints, and replace it with a process modelled on civil justice, in which both parties are given equal access to the allegations, counter-allegations and evidence and then allowed to attend and put their position before a hearing panel, learn of the outcome and have a right to appeal it.  Only when the process is made transparent and fair to both parties, and this is made a condition of registration, will the Office for Students’ (initial) work be done.  ‘

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