Tackling sexual violence and harassment in HE: work still to do

Originally published on wonkhe

For anyone working with students in higher education, the mid-decade culture wars of the 2010s have been exhausting and pretty miserable. We’ve endured an entire set of values being challenged and trashed, as Fleet Street and shady libertarians have taken advantage of a perfect storm to reinvent and gentrify Loony Left tropes into tales of political campus correctness.

Universities UK has tended to be unhelpfully silent on most of these issues, its usual modus operandi focussed on working behind the scenes. After all, the last time it peeped its head above the parapet – gender segregation in religious observance – chief executive Nicola Dandridge got her head blown off by a furious right wing press and a disastrous Today programme interview. But just over a year ago, UUK was exhorted into forming a taskforce of able, willing, and short straw drawing volunteers to look properly at the issue of sexual assault and harassment in universities. This was partly thanks to years of relentless work by NUS Womens Campaign activists, and partly thanks to the fact that ex-Secretary of State Sajid Javid was suffering from a dose of ‘Daughter at Uni’ syndrome.

The good news is that the report passes the first two crucial tests for this sort of work. The taskforce is fairly honest about UK universities having a problem, and it does propose some fairly crunchy solutions. To take a couple of examples: it might seem like common sense that universities should centrally record harassment disclosures, or publish information on how to report an issue, but you’d be surprised at how hard it is sometimes for senior university managers to make it happen.

Notwithstanding the media’s obsession with consent classes, there’s lots of sensible stuff in the report about prevention, lad culture, and supporting victims effectively. And there’s useful nods to the responsibilities of governing bodies to take sexual harassment, sexual violence and hate crime seriously, and monitor the effectiveness of their institutions’ policies.

For campaigners upset that universities have relied on a decades-old set of guidelines to justify not investigating sexual assaults, there’s more to welcome. UUK has simultaneously published Pincent Mason’s review of the 1994 ‘Zellick guidelines’, and whilst it doesn’t go as far as some American equivalent guidelines, the clarifications on disciplinary frameworks and student codes of conduct should finally kill off the preposterous situation where without the high watermark of CPS backing, a perpetrator is more likely to be excluded from a university for graffiti than for sexual assault.

It’s not all good news though. The report is sadly relatively unhelpful on the issue of staff-to-student sexual harassment and assault. The Guardian’s recent story on this may have been an unhelpful bit of Saville/Catholicism clickbait, but the case studies investigated were chilling.

The Guardian’s reporting highlighted the power imbalances between institutions and students, men and women, and perpetrators and victims at play here. And it’s perhaps when it comes to power where the taskforce’s report may fall short. Without real steps are taken to rebalance the scales in favour of victims, both at the casework and strategy level, then work like UUK’s report will be ineffective.

Take the USA. Similar work there has faltered for years, with voluntary best practice exhortations frequently trumped by institutions’ imperative to avoid legal liability. until Joe Biden launched new guidance on ‘Title IX’ – the law governing equality of access to education. Following a long list of controversial cases in American universities, the Vice President and the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to university heads that reinterpreted existing legislation and demanded swifter action by institutions when investigating sexual harassment and violence. Crucially, the guidance stated that “a law enforcement investigation does not relieve the school of its independent Title IX obligation to investigate” an allegation of sexual harassment or violence.

Campaigners in the UK have argued for some time that our own legal equalities framework could offer a similar interpretation if tested, but the documents fall strangely silent on that point. This could be because British legal campaigners are wrong, but it is perhaps more likely that UUK officials know that the campaigners are right, and for all the tough talk, are not keen to poke any bears that might put institutions on the formal legal hook.

The mismatch between institutional and student responsibility is where things get very interesting. One of the most vivid recommendations in the document suggests that conduct policies should shift from an “expectations” to an “obligations” framework. An obligations framework should clearly set out the standards of behaviour that students should display and enabling action to be taken if their behaviour falls short. It’s a solid, sound and in some senses groundbreaking recommendation and a big step forward from the more ‘hands off’ approach of Zellick.

But when it comes to an equivalent shift on the institutional side – that is, requiring, and not just exhorting, that action is taken, that stats are recorded, that policies are followed and that the interests of students are protected with the same vigour as institutional interests – the UUK taskforce is sadly silent. It will probably take thousands more victims, and a UK version of the “Dear Colleague” letter, before universities accept that moving from “expectations” to “obligations” will need to apply to them too.

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