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Examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students

The UUK Taskforce report examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting University students was published on 21 October 2016.

The UUK Taskforce report examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting University students was published on 21 October 2016.

The UUK conference on 4 November 2016 empowered delegates to take the report and craft a plan to effectively respond to harassment and unacceptable behaviour.  This will be a significant piece of work.  The report includes research material and case studies showing the approaches taken by other universities.  In fact, everything delegates will need to: cascade the message back on campus; engage the essential support of senior colleagues and to start to craft a plan.  The report also very sensibly points out that motivation alone will be insufficient.

This brief update discusses a number of legal issues that may arise as university project groups consider the framework and their plan. 

The legal issues are discussed in the context of 2 related strands of work. 

  1. Fostering a cultural change within a cohesive campus community; and
  2. Responding to the exceptional cases – where it is alleged the University standards have been breached and the University is required to consider sanctions.                       

Promoting cultural change where all forms of harassment are unacceptable 

This will be easy to plan and hard to implement.  The conference discussed the size of the challenge given the normalisation in society of certain behaviours that can lead to harassment, violence or hate crime: from the unacceptable behaviour referred to within ‘Laddism’ to criminal activity (actions) which justifies involving Police. 

What is important on your campus?

Universities will first need to understand the live issues on the campus as expressed by the staff and the students.  For example, is there an alcohol or drug awareness issue?  Can student health services be engaged in educating students in sexual health?  Would compulsory awareness courses on sexual consent be effective? (There have been mixed reports on engagement).  Would an alternative approach be better, for example, the powerful and amusing Thames Valley Police Consent is Everything 'cup of tea'?

Discussions with the student body and staff will inform an effective University response and plan. 

Do local business and agencies have a role?

Universities can use their influence as local purchasers to effect the behaviour of those businesses relying on students. 

One university described how it stopped a local nightclub from promoting a fresher’s week event that described female students in sexist and offensive terms.  The university addressed the issue directly with the business concerned to stop the distribution of offensive and inappropriate events leaflets targeted at students.  Effective engagement on a direct basis with a local bar or nightclub, (who will be operating under a premises license issued by the local authority) can be a powerful tool for the university if used appropriately.  This is particularly useful where the licensed premises are close to the campus. If such engagement is not effective in securing the desired change in behaviour on the part of the licensed premises, then maters should be referred to the local licensing authority. It may be the case that a visit from an officer of the licensing authority will secure the necessary change in behaviour.  

Some forms of harassment prevalent on your campus may be effectively addressed in partnership with local agencies.  For example, abuse shouted to students from drivers of passing cars may be an issue for Police to action or to offer advice and support.  Universities currently engaged with local authorities on crime reduction strategies can review the formal information sharing arrangements to ensure these documents are fit for purpose and data is being lawfully shared.  There may also be an overlap with direct civil legal action taken by a victim (for example, harassment orders, Injunctions, child protection issues where children are involved) where the university acts in tandem or to support the individuals involved. 

Legal advice should be obtained to support the University to navigate through these issues.

Staff engagement

The conference emphasised the importance of students as ambassadors and change agents.  An important parallel piece of work will be to ensure all members of staff are ‘on message’ and understand the requirements for them.  To change the culture, a university plan will take account of the values and norms of the students and the staff.  One example was highlighted in the media and focused on harassment by staff and highlights the scale of the problem and issues around victims disclosing.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/07/scale-of-sexual-abuse-in-uk-universities-likened-to-savile-and-catholic-scandals

Project group

From a legal perspective, it will be important for a university to understand the cultural norms around staff behaviour as part of the plan of work required to address issues. 

Questions for the project group may include:

  • Do all staff need training on what is expected?  Does the role of personal tutor require reframing?  Does the university have a Code of Conduct explaining the boundaries of staff and student relationships?  How do colleagues respond to student ‘expressions of dissatisfaction’?  How effective is the university at listening to complaints and dealing with them?
  • If the campus reality is inconsistent with the required practices to bring the cultural change to life, the university will need to tailor the plan to engage staff effectively on the relevant issues.  The university will fail to comply with the legal duties to students and staff if the expectations are not been made clear and all members of staff understand they are required to engage and follow through with issues raised with them direct. 

Responding to alleged breaches

The UUK Taskforce Framework includes excellent guidance on responding to incidents.  The concept of zero tolerance may be viewed as a powerful position statement and starting point, however, it will be important the university responds to individual cases where breaches are alleged, as different and unique.  Each response will be based on the facts of what is reported to have occurred.  A lawful sanction will be a reasonable response based on the facts of the particular case.  A university panel considering an alleged breach will find they balance the impact of an incident against an individual’s personal circumstances.  Is it appropriate an individual, in appropriate circumstances, is given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes? 

University project teams will need to ensure consistency across the policies where conduct is a key component, for example, Fitness for Practice.

Where to start?

The obvious initial question (having engaged the support of the Board and management) will be ‘which area of the University is going to lead on this?’ and ‘who will act as the ‘go to’ person co-ordinating the university response?’  Will it be Student services, Human resources, Equality and diversity?  This question is important since the university will need to ensure a co-ordinated approach to supporting the individuals involved (alleged victims, alleged perpetrators and staff receiving/dealing with confidential and sensitive disclosures) and investigating alleged breaches of the rules (of the Student charter, Code of conduct, Anti-Social behaviour policy etc.) and investigating the breach within the relevant Disciplinary regulation(s).  To operate this approach in a legally enforceable manner, the students should receive clear information on the standards of behaviour the University requires and the potential consequences.  This should include specific examples of what the university considers inappropriate behaviour and specify the range of penalties as a consequence of breaching the rules.  The university must then apply the rules in a consistent manner within a tariff of sanctions that reflect the seriousness of the particular case and the breach complained of.

Resources

Of course, university leaders will be ‘alive’ to the business case for creating and supporting a campus environment to support study and the student experience without the threat of violence or harassment.  The consumer aspect to this issue and the risk of students making claims against a university is obvious.  In taking this forward, we should remember there is no such thing as a perfect plan.  The co-ordinator within the University will need to be resourced to both plan at the outset and to revise, review and tweak over the months/years ahead to reflect successes, lessons learned and to measure the data to see whether the cultural shift has gained traction.

UUK intend to survey in 6 months and have committed to a regular conference on this issue. 

Anyone who missed the UUK conference may be interested in the Public Policy Exchange event: tackling rape, sexual assault and harassment at universities and colleges on 11th January 2017.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised please contact: