Changing the Culture in Universities

Alison Jones, University Secretary at the University of Bradford, has been reflecting on the challenge of culture change in our universities. How can we ensure our institutions are inclusive and diverse communities where tolerance, dignity and respect are practiced, and processes and support are in place to handle allegations of misconduct?

This week at the University of Bradford’s 12th annual Rosa Parks Symposium – Seeking Courage, Fighting Hate and Finding Belonging in times of Global Instability, I have been reflecting on the messages from the speakers and the challenge set down by the UUK Task Force to change the culture in our universities.

The Universities UK conference last month, Tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students explored the work undertaken by the Task Force researching the rise of incidents on university campuses and introduced the new Guidance for Higher Education Institutions – How to handle alleged student misconduct which may also constitute a criminal offence. The guidance has been produced in response for calls to update the Zellick guidance published in 1994.

UUK had previously published the findings of their research in Changing the Culture, which also provides many examples of excellent practice being developed and adopted across the sector, many of which were shared with delegates at the UUK conference.

Set up in response to concerns raised by the NUS, the Task Force gathered evidence from across the sector and broadly found that: ‘University responses [to matters related to allegations of violence against women, harassment and hate crime] are not as comprehensive, systematic and joined-up as they could be’.

The NUS has been actively campaigning on this issue for a number of years, highlighting the rise of ‘lad culture’ on university campuses. Writing in the Guardian in 2014, Alison Phipps, an academic in the field, describes the political sleight of hand that lad culture pulls: it “… can attach a veneer of respectability to what’s really ‘sexism with an alibi’, and produce fatalistic ‘boys-will-be-boys’ dismissals.”

The 2010 NUS survey cited in the Changing the Culture report found that 14% of respondents had experienced a serious sexual or physical assault and 68% verbal or sexual harassment on campus.  This was followed up in a poll of new students in 2015 where 17% responded that during their first week of term they had experienced sexual harassment.

The report goes on to report high incidents of harassment for other students, including one in five of LGBT+ students, with Trans students being twice as likely as LGBT+ to have faced the same issues. Research by the Equality Challenge Unit found more encouraging views about religious and racial tolerance on campus, although concerns continue to be expressed about the impact of antisemitism and of hate crime against Muslim students.

Changing the Culture provides the sobering backdrop to the need for universities to change their approach. As set out above, many have been doing so for some time in terms of improving reporting and support for students, and in terms of raising awareness of the importance of tolerance, dignity and respect. The positive attribute of our sector, despite these increasingly marketised times, is that we remain willing to share and there is much that can be learned from the case studies in the report.

Alongside the recommended changes in culture in our universities comes the practical guidance produced by UUK and Pinsents for handling allegations of student misconduct which may also constitute a criminal offence. Many things remain the same in the sector since the publication of Zellick in 1994: the duty of care for all students; the need to balance the rights of the alleged perpetrator with those of the victim; the limitations of internal procedures to matters of misconduct and the limitations on possible sanctions.

However the legal context has changed significantly with the introduction of the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act in 1998, the Equality Act in 2010 and the Consumer Protection Act in 2015. The context of students as consumers for the purposes of the law changes the nature of the relationship between universities and students when it comes to handling cases of alleged misconduct which must now be seen as breach of contract.

The new guidance is clear and provides an excellent framework for universities to adopt to ensure the precedence of legal proceedings, to ensure that sensitive cases are handled by trained staff who know what to deal with and what to refer, that measures for precautionary action are clearly articulated and that the rights of all students are carefully managed and supported.

The bigger challenge of changing culture remains but universities should be well-placed to achieve this. One of the speakers at the Rosa Parks Symposium today quoted Honoré de Balzac, who said that ‘hatred is the vice of narrow souls’. Surely universities are the places to challenge and to seek to expand the views and perspectives of our staff and students?