From education to employment

Robust complaints procedures required for students reporting harassment and sexual assault

Today (9 Jan) the Office for Students has published its proposed set of expectations on how universities and colleges should deal with reports of harassment and all forms of sexual misconduct.  

The statement of expectations forms the basis of a consultation, in which students, higher education providers and representative bodies will have the opportunity to feed back to the OfS and help shape the approach. It builds on existing research, recommendations and guidance from organisations such as the NUS and Universities UK as well as examples of good practice across the sector.

The proposals also provide additional clarity on how the regulator would use its powers to intervene where it sees evidence of a failure of a provider’s complaint handling process.

Harassment includes unwanted behaviour or conduct connected to one or more of the following protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. Sexual misconduct includes all unwanted conduct of a sexual nature such as sexual harassment, assault, rape or ‘revenge porn’.

Providers should have adequate and effective policies and processes in place for all students to report and disclose incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct. 

The Office for Student expects this to include:  

  • Provision of easy to understand information for students and staff on how they can report, disclose or seek support if they experience or witness any incident of harassment or sexual misconduct 
  • An investigatory process that is fair, independent, and free from any reasonable perception of bias 
  • In the event of a disclosure, those involved have access to appropriate support prior to, during, and following any formal investigation 

Under the proposals, the OfS would use its powers to intervene if there were evidence of a failure of a provider’s complaint handling process to respond to reports of harassment and sexual misconduct.  

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:  

“We continue to hear accounts of students experiencing harassment, sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct. Too often students say they are not getting the support they need if they suffer this unacceptable behaviour, and that reporting systems are not clear or effective.

“Many institutions are taking concrete steps to address the issue and we have funded 119 projects across the country to develop initiatives and share them across the sector. But we need to do more for the students who are still being let down by ineffective procedures and inadequate support.

“Our proposed statement of expectations sets out the basis of fair, clear and robust processes that we expect all higher education providers to have in place to respond effectively to harassment and sexual misconduct. Where we see evidence of serious failings, we have the regulatory powers to intervene. 

“Dealing with harassment and sexual misconduct will require action and collaboration from a range of parties. We will continue to work with universities, colleges, and students to ensure that steps are taken to prevent harassment and sexual misconduct from happening in the first place, but if it does happen students are supported and reported incidents are dealt with effectively.”

The statement of expectations also includes recommendations which focus on prevention and awareness raising in universities and colleges.

For example, it is proposed that universities and colleges should: 

  • Clearly set out behavioralexpectations for prospective and current students, staff and visitors, and the possible sanctions that can be imposed where these are not followed 
  • Make training available for all staff and students to help prevent incidents and encourage reporting – for example bystander initiatives and consent workshops  
  • Ensure that activities to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct are embedded across the university or college with oversight from senior leadership 

The OfS has funded 119 projects across the country since 2017 with the aim of developing and disseminating effective practice in preventing and responding to sexual misconduct, hate crime, online harassment and religion based hate crime.  

The purpose of this consultation is to propose a set of expectations of providers, and to require clear, accessible and effective complaints procedures. Taken together, the intention is that students will be aware of the processes for reporting incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct, will feel confident in reporting them, be supported to do so, and will know that their complaints will be address effectively.

The regulatory remit of the OfS does not extend to the ability to intervene in individual student cases. These should be dealt with through a provider’s internal complaint’s processes. If a student feels that an issue is not resolved, they can refer their concerns to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.

Our definition for the purposes of the consultation and our proposed approach is as follows:

Harassment includes unwanted behaviour or conduct which makes a person(s) feel offended, intimidated or humiliated if it occurs because of, or connected to, one or more of the following protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation (as defined by Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010).  

We would read harassment to also include any incidents of physical violence towards another person(s) on the basis of a protected characteristic. Under our definition, we will understand harassment to include hate crimes, as defined by the Home Office in 2016. 

Sexual misconduct relates to all unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, including, but not limited to:  

  1. Sexual harassment (as defined by Section 26 (2) of the Equality Act 2010)  
  2. Unwanted conduct which creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment (as defined by the Equality Act 2010)  
  3. Assault (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003) 
  4. Rape (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003) 
  5. Physical unwanted sexual advances (as set out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: Sexual harassment and the law, 2017) 
  6. Intimidation or promising resources or benefits in return for sexual favours (as set out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: Sexual harassment and the law, 2017) 
  7. Distributing private and personal explicit images or video footage of an individual without their consent (as defined by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015) 

The above definitions would include harassment or sexual misconduct through any medium, including, for example, online.

This consultation relates to the OfS’s powers under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) to impose conditions of registration. It is consistent with our approach to regulating conditions of registration and applying interventions and sanctions to address breach or risk of breach, as set out in the regulatory framework. 

Related Articles