Safeguarding students: understanding what works

VWV's Kris Robbetts on the sector-wide challenge of mitigating risks to students in everything from mental health to bullying

Safeguarding risks to students in higher education takes many forms, from bullying and harassment to sexual violence and compromised mental health. Responding to these risks is a sector-wide challenge, towards which both the Office for Students (OfS) and UUK have taken a leading role. In September 2018, independent evaluators appointed by the OfS from AdvanceHE published a report on the research undertaken to date to share ‘what works’ and inform sector and institutional practice.

Background: How did we get here?

Back in 2016, the UUK Harassment Taskforce published its now well-known report Changing the Culture. Its recommendations, which stressed the need for institutions to be more systematic in their approach to harassment, sexual violence and hate crime, were followed by guidance on handling alleged student misconduct and, earlier this year, were supplemented further by a progress report (Changing the Culture: One Year On).

The Catalyst Fund

At around the same time, the OfS assumed responsibility from HEFCE for Catalyst funding aimed at promoting safeguarding students in higher education. In all, the Catalyst Fund allocated £4.4m in one-to-one match funding to help HEIs with a total of 108 one-year projects designed to keep students safe. This has been divided between sexual violence and harassment (round one) and hate crime and online harassment (round two). The intended outcomes of these projects encompass institution (i.e. leadership and staff) and student-focused objectives including management, involvement, training, reporting, collaboration and monitoring.

A third round of funding (£1.5m) was allocated by the OfS in March 2018 for 17 two-year projects aimed at developing knowledge and practice to address hate crime relating to religion or belief. In addition, the OfS is working with Research England to support mental health and wellbeing for postgraduate research students. The overall strategy is to stimulate cultural change through a diverse range of interventions.

So, what works?

AdvanceHE’s analysis of the 45 completed Round One projects focuses on several key themes: delivery and effective management; leadership and governance; student and staff involvement; partnership and collaboration; and the embeddedness and sustainability of change. In the main, these projects concentrated on tackling issues of student-student sexual misconduct with a smaller number addressing domestic abuse, hate crime and other forms of harassment.

●  Delivery and managementparticular success has been noted in relation to the creation of new posts and roles, new policies, processes and reporting systems and the implementation of training and prevention strategies. This is despite significant challenges and barriers including the short one-year timeframe, delays in recruitment, the need to narrow project scope and reformulate priorities and recruiting students for training

●  Leadership and governanceit was always anticipated that the success of projects would depend heavily on the extent of senior leadership buy-in. Without this, the sort of provider-wide approach needed to make genuine cultural change would likely remain elusive. Targeted training and modification of the governance of safeguarding are both reported as having a significant impact and the potential to be the basis of sustainable long-term change

●  Staff and student engagementeffective staff engagement occurred when projects drew on a variety of academic interest areas, thereby utilising a range of in-house expertise (e.g. criminology, sociology, psychology) to inform design and delivery. Unsurprisingly, it also helped to have staff who were personally interested in safeguarding and, therefore more likely to engage and invest their own time in pushing projects forward. On the student side, collaboration with student unions and engagement with those on courses with content linked to safeguarding was effective

●  Partnership and collaborationprojects involving participants engaging with external agencies were found to have mutual benefits. For universities, it provided access to specialist knowledge that could inform project design and delivery. For agencies such as the police, it was a way to break down barriers and debunk myths believed to inhibit, for example, the willingness of complainants to report crimes

Embeddedness and sustainability a key reported feature of established safeguarding work in HE is that it is usually based solely in Student Services, which limits the development of an institution-wide approach. Catalyst funding has helped to overcome this in some institutions by facilitating co-operation between student unions and a range of academic departments. As might be expected, this has been more difficult in larger providers and those with a collegiate structure, but led to more creative responses, such as, in one case, collaboration with the local authority and other external partners

Kris Robbetts

While it is accepted that 12 months is not long enough both to build and implement meaningful safeguarding initiatives, learning points and positive effects have already been identified.

Of the outcomes cited in the evaluation report, the top two related to improved collaboration – better cross-sector sharing of practice and more partnership working. Enhanced student awareness and engagement as well as improvements to the handling of disclosures and reporting methods and increased reporting also stand out.

Bystander training aimed at particular groups (e.g. those working in accommodation) or group leaders (such as club captains) is a popular approach, the intention being to empower students (and others) to act as ‘pro-social citizens’.  The Intervention Initiative, which is a programme of eight facilitated one-hour sessions originally created by academics at UWE in 2014, is perhaps the most developed UK resource and is freely available.

Arguably the most valuable insight to emerge so far is confirmation that, for there to be tangible cultural change around gender-based violence, intervention is needed before students enter further or higher education. This suggests that initiatives should be aimed at children well before they complete school and emphasises the importance of how HE providers interact with and share information with schools and colleges.

Another clear message is the positive effect that Catalyst funding has had on institutions’ willingness to address these difficult issues by alleviating senior management concerns about reputational damage. With scores of institutions working simultaneously to address what is a sensitive but sector-wide issue, no one provider is being associated with and potentially tarnished by student vulnerability.

What next?

Addressing multi-faceted student safeguarding issues in HE effectively is a massive and ongoing task. While many of the round one projects are still developing, it is clear that Catalyst funding has already helped a number of institutions to achieve promising signs of improvement. Equally clear is that true cultural change can only realistically be a long-term aspiration and one likely to require intervention by schools and colleges as well as by HE providers. The evaluation of round two projects will begin shortly and the results will feed into a final evaluation report due in March 2019.

What will happen once the evaluation process is complete is yet to be determined. Many would welcome safeguarding guidance from the OfS and/or UUK so that best practice can be shared and help the sector maintain the momentum of progress to date.

To be kept up to date on legal, regulatory and governance issues, please register for VWV’s dedicated HE portal OnStream at vwv.co.uk/he-onstream

Kris Robbetts is a partner at leading education law firm VWV. He can be contacted on 0117 314 5427 or at krobbetts@vwv.co.uk