HE regulator calls for robust procedures over reports of sexual misconduct and harassment

“Too often, students say they are not getting the support they need,” says the Office for Students, as it publishes new proposals

Today sees the independent regulator of higher education in England publish new proposals for how HE institutions should act following reports of harassment and sexual misconduct.

The Office for Students’ (OfS) statement of expectations builds on research and recommendations from organisations – such as the NUS and Universities UK – alongside examples of good practice across the sector.

It will form the basis of a consultation offering students, higher education providers and representative bodies the opportunity to feed back to the organisation and help forge its approach.

The proposals also add clarity as to how the OfS would intervene when given evidence of HE providers failing to adequately enact complaint-handling processes.

The initiative comes in the wake of October’s BBC investigation suggesting that reports of rape, sexual assault and harassment at UK universities had trebled in three years.

One hundred and twenty-four universities told the corporation that they had recorded 1,436 allegations of sexual harassment or sexual violence against students in 2018-19; up from 476 in 2016-17.

Dealing with harassment and sexual misconduct will require action and collaboration from a range of parties
 – OfS chief executive, Nicola Dandridge

“We continue to hear accounts of students experiencing harassment, sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct,” said OfS chief executive, Nicola Dandridge.

“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.”

To counter this, the OfS expects providers’ policies and processes to include:

  • Provision of easy to understand information for students and staff on how they can report, disclose or seek support if they experience or witness any incident of harassment or sexual misconduct 
  • An investigatory process that is fair, independent, and free from any reasonable perception of bias 
  • In the event of a disclosure, those involved have access to appropriate support prior to, during, and following any formal investigation 

“Our proposed statement of expectations sets out the basis of fair, clear and robust processes that we expect all higher education providers to have in place to respond effectively to harassment and sexual misconduct,” added Dandridge. “Where we see evidence of serious failings, we have the regulatory powers to intervene.

“Many institutions are taking concrete steps to address the issue, and we have funded 119 projects across the country to develop initiatives and share them across the sector. But we need to do more for the students who are still being let down by ineffective procedures and inadequate support.

“Dealing with harassment and sexual misconduct will require action and collaboration from a range of parties. We will continue to work with universities, colleges, and students to ensure that steps are taken to prevent harassment and sexual misconduct from happening in the first place, but if it does happen students are supported and reported incidents are dealt with effectively.”

Defining terms

Harassment is defined as unwanted behaviour or conduct connected to one or more of the following protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Sexual misconduct, meanwhile, constitutes all unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, such as sexual harassment, assault, rape or revenge porn.

The OfS’ recommendations for prevention and awareness raising in HE institutions includes:

  • Clearly set out behavioural expectations for students, staff and visitors, and the sanctions that can be imposed if these are not followed 
  • Make training available for all staff and students to help prevent incidents and encourage reporting
  • Ensure that activities to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct are embedded across the institution with oversight from senior leadership 


From the archive: Edinburgh Uni fights sexual harassment with new campaign


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