Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Sexual harassment on campus

The BIS announcement on Monday of a UUK task force to tackle violence against women on campus is targeted at a real and longstanding issue. In this post I’ll look at the proposed task force, what’s behind this, and what universities can do.

The task force isn’t the government’s – it’s to be run by Universities UK, but has been asked by BIS to do five things:

  • Develop a code of practice to support cultural change in universities
  • Work up a kitemark scheme to recognise successful universities 
  • Develop practice in working with local police
  • Ensure proper use of OIA and – interestingly – the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for complaints
  • Encourage universities to work with local groups

Codes of Practice and kitemarks can be a bit woolly but there’s some specifics in there, which suggests that this is a little more than window dressing.

There’s no doubt that there is a problem to be addressed. An NUS report in 2010 – highlighted by BIS – identified that one in seven respondents to a large-scale (n=2058) survey of female students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student, with more than two-thirds experiencing some form of verbal or non-verbal harassment.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator – in its 2014 annual report – identified sexual harassment as an Emerging and High Profile issue:

Sexual harassment and the ‘lads’ culture’
The NUS and many providers have taken a close interest, both in the UK and overseas, in sexual harassment on campus. Student and national media carry frequent stories about what is euphemistically termed ‘laddish’ behaviour, often from sports clubs and other student societies. There are disturbing reports of what one student newspaper called the ‘rape culture’. One student committed suicide in 2014, following allegations of persistent sexual harassment.
The OIA receives a small number of complaints each year from students who may be victims, or who are alleged or convicted perpetrators, of harassment and sexual assault. Some of these cases relate to crimes for which perpetrators have been convicted by the courts. Others cover incidents that have been dealt with internally under a provider’s disciplinary regulations, but do not lead to criminal charges. Some of the students involved struggle to understand that behaviour that they wrongly believe is acceptable breaks disciplinary codes, and sometimes laws, that have been put in place to protect others.
It should be of concern to everyone working and studying in higher education that cases occur of unwanted physical contact, unwanted advances, initiation ceremonies, sexual innuendo and threats. We have made, and providers have implemented, recommendations about improving support and strengthening processes to help students, and also staff, involved in such cases. The OIA’s role is not to judge the behaviour but to look at how the providers dealt with complaints or disciplinary cases. One case concluded in 2014 confirmed that a provider’s decision to expel a student following complaints about indecent exposure was reasonable, but only after it was required to re-run the disciplinary process having mishandled the case first time around.
These are not easy issues to deal with. The OIA is in early stages of discussions with the NUS and other stakeholders on joint working to provide additional guidance.
The Task Force terms of reference and membership have not yet been announced by UUK – no doubt it will be discussed at the UUK Annual get-together this week. But the steer that BIS have given UUK is interesting.

Firstly, the Equality Act dimension. The Equality Act – and especially the Public Sector Equality Duty - place an obligation on universities not only to reactively deal with issues of equality, but proactively to work towards a greater degree of equality. This is a powerful tool.  By citing it, BIS are making the issue of sexual harassment, and its likely effect of making women less likely to thrive within an HE environment, one for which universities are responsible. Universities cannot dismiss the issue as one of individual transgressions: there’s a systemic element.

Secondly, there’s an element of rebuke here. The Public Sector Equality Duty makes universities responsible for proactively identifying and dealing with issues which militate against equal treatment. That it’s taken BIS – in 2015 – to publicly identify something which NUS flagged in 2010 does mean that universities have not had their eyes on the ball – collectively – with this one. Obviously universities haven’t ignored the issue when it was raised with them by BIS. It wouldn’t be a task force if they had. But it’s interesting to see that BIS are willing to engage with wider sector issues like this.

So what can universities do? Engage with the task force’s work and implement its recommendations, for sure. Implement the Code of Practice and get the kitemark. But there’s a deeper issue here. Universities have a long habit of trying to deal with matters internally. This goes right back to the original medieval foundation of universities as being responsible for their own staff and students in all matters. (That’s the derivation of 'university', by the way – universitas being a single corporate body; it’s got nothing to do with universality of knowledge.) But crime on campus should be treated as such, and universities will need to become more adept at bringing in the police when necessary, and counselling individual students of the need to report crime as crime.

This is an agonising issue. When a student is crying in your office, with a sad account of wrongdoing and harm done, it is a natural response to try use the tools you have– internal disciplinary codes, and the like – to sort it out. Especially when the alleged perpetrator is a fellow student. But a crime is a crime and treating it as if it were an internal misdemeanour can go wrong – leaving a mess that doesn’t wash out easily. So there’s a need for more resource for advising students, but also a need not to intervene when your regulatory powers to do so are not up to the task.

Students’ Unions are a boon in such circumstances. Obviously not in breaching confidentiality in individual cases, but as a partner in helping individual students recognise that harm done to them should be reported and dealt with by the law; and also that their individual behaviour can have consequences. This is how culture will change over time.


  1. Hugh,
    I really love reading your blog and was encouraged to get in touch by your saying 'a crime is a crime'. I totally agree.
    I'd be fascinated to hear your thoughts on a scenario I once encountered in a previous life.

    A student was being 'tried' in the kangaroo court known as a fitness to practice hearing (the university one before the industry gets involved). There was a solicitor present representing the student as the student had waived their right to students' union representation.

    The accusation was that the student had falsified the signature of an academic staff member to get an extension on a piece of work or similar.

    The argument put forward by the solicitor was that the accusation was of fraud. Fraud is a crime and should be:
    1) Dealt with by police, CPS and the courts;
    2) Subject to the higher standard of proof: beyond all reasonable doubt (I believe fitness to practice uses the balance of probabilities).

    Was the solicitor right?
    Was the university acting ultra vires?

    The student was expelled.

  2. Thanks, Harry. You ask a good question. Rather than go into the details of the case you raise (I've learnt the importance of understanding all of the facts in a case) it might be useful to think about hw to answer the question.

    One point is whether every instance of a forged signature is fraud within the meaning of the relevant act of parliament - I'd want to look at the legislation to understand whether certain contexts were necessary. (eg would a child faking a note from their mum to get off PE at school be committing fraud?)

    The second quesiotn would be the significance. I agree that an FtP panel has a bearing on a student's professional career, so it is a serious matter. A court might well ask whether the machinery of the university as appropriate to consider the issue. I doubt that they'd want to get involved.

    Law and practice here are difficult. The medieval origins of universities - as single self-governing communities - can still be seen in some of the practicies around contracts. The university might argue that by signing up to the degree programme, the student has accepted the authroity of the FtP panel: this argument is a lot harder to make in the light of last year's CMA guidance.

    I think there's probably a difference too in the closeness of the issues to the prupose of the student's education. Making sure that processes which lead to a degree (and possibly a license to practice) are sound and secure is an intrinsic part of using powers to award a degree. It's what universities are for. Whereas secual relations between members of a university community, whether consensual or otherwise, fall outside of the normal exercise of a university's proper powers.

    I'm away from my office at the moment so I haven't consulted the bible - Farringdon and Palfreyman's 'Law of Higher Education' - to see what they have to say. There may be case law which is relevant.

    Thanks again for the comment - much food for thought!