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OfS launches consultation on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct

Students walking holding books

Universities and colleges would need to maintain a register of personal relationships between staff and students under plans published today (23rd Feb) by the Office for Students (OfS). The proposal forms part of a wider consultation on regulating harassment and sexual misconduct in English higher education, including greater support for victims, and mandatory training for students and staff.  

The relationships register would apply to certain personal relationships in circumstances where a staff member has particular responsibilities towards a student, for example where an academic is responsible for assessing a student’s work. The consultation proposes that any academic not disclosing such a personal relationship should be liable for dismissal. The register is the OfS’s preferred option, but views are also sought on an outright ban of such personal relationships between a student and a staff member with responsibilities towards that student.  

The OfS is proposing a new condition of registration to address harassment and sexual misconduct. If a condition is introduced following the consultation, universities and colleges would have to take a number of steps, including: 

  • Introducing mandatory training for students and staff. This should include ‘bystander training’ for potential witnesses to raise awareness of and prevent sexual misconduct. 
  • Publishing a single document setting out how an institution will make a significant and credible difference in tackling harassment and sexual misconduct. The document would include information about how to report cases of harassment and sexual misconduct, and explain how students will be supported through the process. 
  • Banning the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of harassment and sexual misconduct, and any enforcement of existing non-disclosure agreements. 

There is a specific requirement in the proposed condition which would require universities and colleges to comply with the OfS’s requirements in a way that is consistent with principles for freedom of speech within the law.  

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said:  

‘These are important proposals which would allow the OfS – for the first time – to directly regulate concerns about harassment and sexual misconduct. Some universities are already doing excellent work in this area, but we know that progress across the sector has been too slow and too patchy. Our independent evaluation found that self-regulation had not delivered the changes we think students are entitled to see. 

‘Harassment and sexual misconduct can have a profound – and sometimes devastating – impact on the lives of students, including damage to their education. Our proposals would ensure that victims of harassment and sexual misconduct are appropriately supported, and that universities and colleges make significant progress to reduce these incidents. 

‘We are keen to hear from students, the universities and colleges we regulate, and anyone else with an interest in reducing harassment and sexual misconduct, as we take this work forward. 

‘We are particularly interested in views about relationships between staff and students. The majority of those working in higher education behave appropriately towards their students. But we recognise that there can be a power imbalance in personal relationships that could be exploited by unscrupulous staff to subject students to harassment or sexual misconduct. That’s why we’re proposing that certain types of personal relationships should be disclosed, with staff dismissed if they fail to do so. Some universities already go further, and have policies that ban all relationships between staff and students. We will continue to consider this option and welcome views on whether it is an approach we should require of all institutions.’ 

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