Tackling Harassment and Sexual Misconduct – can Universities do more?

New guidance from the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) offers support on addressing and tackling harassment and misconduct in HEIs. Amanda Oliver, Deputy Executive Secretary, CUC, explains more.

Reports of harassment and sexual misconduct in universities continue to be widespread and attract a high level of public, political, and media interest.  For anyone who has been to university or any parent considering sending their child to university, these reports are hard to hear.

All universities have a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and aside from a moral imperative to take action, universities are also subject to legal and regulatory duties which require them to protect their staff and students from harassment.

“A university that fails to take action to address harassment risks its reputation, its relationship with students and local communities, and its long-term sustainability”.

Yet despite this, and high levels of investment by universities in tackling harassment, reports continue. These reports are even more shocking when universities are criticised for failing to take action and having ineffective systems, policies, and procedures, to support staff and students reporting and disclosing incidents.

So when asked can universities do more the simple answer would appear to be a resounding yes.  The testimonies on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website and the acceleration in cases of online harassment during the pandemic certainly give weight to this argument.    However, if universities are investing heavily in addressing issues of harassment, this begs the question what are universities getting wrong? And the answer may be nothing!

Students are also more likely to be a victim of sexual harassment than in any other sector occupation. Universities by their very nature are often more diverse in their populations and therefore it should not be a surprise that harassment cases are more concentrated in universities and areas with high student populations.

It is also easy to forget the enormous challenges universities face in preventing and addressing issues of harassment.  Not least ensuring that everyone in the university community understands their responsibilities and the enforcement action that will be taken in addressing incidents. The size of this task cannot be understated and requires almost “constant communication” to account for changes within the staff, governor, and student population throughout the academic year.

In addressing issues, universities also find themselves dealing with complex and in some cases conflicting legislation and when a criminal investigation is underway they are very limited to what information they can share.

To support universities in tackling harassment the CUC has recently developed a Guide to provide practical support for governors leading and managing harassment in their universities. Governing bodies have a key role to play in providing leadership to their institution and in creating a culture that ensures universities become safe places to live, work, and study for both staff and students.

The Guide aims to:

highlight the role and obligations of university governing boards;
offer support on leading strategies for addressing misconduct, harassment, and hate incidents in university settings;
be both a motivational and practical resource to instigate the changes needed to tackle this critical agenda.
The Guide also includes case studies that illustrate practices and initiatives implemented by universities that have been successful.

In producing this guidance, I have been struck by the volume of work the sector is undertaking, as institutions and with local partners, to address issues of harassment both on and off campus.  In particular, I have been impressed by the number of universities that have employed dedicated trained specialists in investigating reports with sensitivity and the investment made to create a culture that supports disclosures. It is disappointing that this work often fails to attract media, political, or public interest but evidence of initiatives to reduce harassment can be found in all universities.

There is no question that universities are committed to eradicating all forms of harassment, however, it is important to remember that university communities are a microcosm of society, and therefore as long as harassment continues to be a societal issue then it is also likely to be a university one. In recent years, universities have made significant progress in tackling harassment, however, even those universities that can demonstrate excellent practice and success in reducing harassment, admit more can be done.

Amanda Oliver, Deputy Executive Secretary, CUC

The CUC guidance has been produced with the support of OfS and UUK and has benefited from consultation with CUC members and other professionals working in the sector.  The CUC is grateful to all those members of CUC and other stakeholders that have contributed their time and expertise to this work – a copy of the Guide is available here.