The Office for Students (OfS) is to propose a new condition of registration, which would place requirements on universities and colleges to address harassment and sexual misconduct.
The regulator has also announced that it has begun work to develop a ‘prevalence survey’ to understand the scale and nature of sexual misconduct affecting higher education students in England.
The OfS plans to consult on the proposed condition in early 2023. Subject to the outcomes of the consultation, a new condition could be in place before the start of the next academic year. The OfS would run a pilot prevalence survey on the same timetable.
Earlier this year the OfS commissioned an independent evaluation of the actions universities and colleges had taken in response to its Statement of Expectations which provides recommendations for the systems, policies and practices institutions need to have in place to prevent and effectively respond to harassment and sexual misconduct.
The full evaluation, which will be published in November, is expected to show that universities and colleges have taken steps to improve their approach, for example, making it easier for incidents to be reported. But evidence from students suggests that progress has been inconsistent and too slow, with many students still not knowing what to do if this happens to them, or having a poor experience when they do report incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct to their university.
The OfS’s prevalence survey will aim to measure the extent of sexual misconduct in higher education. Students will be surveyed to provide reliable data about who is subject to incidents of sexual misconduct, and where and when incidents take place. This will help universities to target action to prevent incidents and to know whether their interventions are having a positive impact. The data will also provide regulatory intelligence for OfS to inform its work in this area.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, announced these plans while giving evidence to a House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee hearing today. After the meeting, she said:
‘Tackling harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education is incredibly important and we think there is more that universities can and should do.
‘The OfS has funded and evaluated over 100 projects in this area. We have published effective practice and resources so all universities and colleges can learn more about what works best. Our voluntary statement of expectations for universities and colleges has been in place for 18 months. Preliminary findings from an independent evaluation show that many universities and colleges have taken action but progress is inconsistent and too slow. Students tell us they have not experienced the tangible improvements they would expect.
‘We have always been clear we would consider moving to sharper regulation if self-regulation did not have the impact we want to see. We will present proposals for new regulatory requirements and intervention early next year and look forward to hearing the views of students, universities and colleges, and other stakeholders during our consultation.’