Review sexual harassment procedures by this summer, regulator tells universities

“Students continue to report worrying cases that have not been properly addressed by their university,” the Office for Students says

The Office for Students has instructed universities in England to urgently review how they handle complaints of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment after a raft of testimonies were published on the Everyone’s Invited website earlier this year.

The higher education regulator in England today published a ‘statement of expectations’ on the approach registered providers should take to ensure “all incidents are dealt with effectively and sensitively”.

The OfS has told universities to evaluate their code of conduct and complaints procedures by “this summer”.

Everyone’s Invited, a website that gathers testimonies of sexual harassment and abuse in schools, college and universities, has published thousands of student allegations. At the time of publishing, the site has named 111 institutions in the UK.

The OfS statement is, for now, treated as guidance on best practice, but the organisation’s chief advised universities the regulator may update its rule book next year to include them. If that happens, universities could be de-registered if they fail to implement regulator-standard safeguards and processes.

Universities should allow students to “report and disclose any incidents” and “minimise potential barriers” that may dissuade them from doing so.

Universities and colleges need to explain clearly to students, staff and visitors what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students

With a new academic year just five months away, the OfS wants universities to “clearly set out behavioural expectations for all students, staff and visitors” when they arrive on campus and ensure all are familiar with the codes of conduct. Universities should provide “effective pastoral support” and guarantee “fair and independent” investigations.

“These expectations provide a standard. It is now for all universities and colleges registered with the OfS to put these principles into practice,” said Dandridge.

“Having the right processes is important. Students should feel confident reporting and disclosing incidents, knowing that they will be listened to and their reports will be dealt with appropriately. Staff need the right training to enable them to respond effectively and sensitively to disclosures and reports from students – if only to know to refer students on quickly to whoever is best placed to provide the right support.

“Good communication matters too. Universities and colleges need to explain clearly to students, staff and visitors what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. By providing this clarity, as well as raising awareness of the nature and impact of harassment and sexual misconduct, they can help prevent harmful incidents.”

The OfS will “examine” how universities respond to the guidance and want to hear from students’ groups and unions “that things are changing for the better”.

The OfS updated its guidance in January 2020 on sexual harassment complaints. Commenting at the time, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “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.”

Earlier this year, Universities UK told University Business “there is a long way to go in ending harassment” in higher education.

Read more: Sexual assault: UUK admits universities still have ‘long way to go’

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