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Evaluation of the Initial Impact of the Statement of Expectations – Final Report and Insight: Tackling sexual misconduct in universities and colleges

In April 2021, the OfS published a “statement of expectations” containing recommendations to assist universities and colleges in the development and implementation of effective systems, policies and processes to prevent and respond to harassment and sexual misconduct. Following its publication, providers were invited to review and update their systems, policies and procedures. OfS has commissioned SUMS Consulting to evaluate the initial impact of the statement of expectations. The evaluation took place from March to October 2022. It involved a survey of 100 universities and colleges and conversation with students and student unions. Its aim is to understand if, and how, the statement has driven changes in provider behaviour and in related student experiences and outcomes. Alongside this research, the regulator has published an Insight brief which summarises data on the prevalence and effects of sexual misconduct and the role of universities in protecting students. It looks at what the OfS, universities and colleges have done in this area and what more needs to be done. In the bullet points below, the first eight refer to the evaluation report and the remaining points refer to the Insight report.

The evaluation can be found here

The Insight Brief can be found here

At a glance:

  • The OfS statement has led to improvements in the policies, systems and processes that universities and colleges need to tackle this issue . These include attention to addressing harassment and sexual misconduct, particularly in universities’ senior leadership teams and governing bodies (p26-27)
  • Some excellent practice is in evidence, including recruitment of specially trained staff to support victims of sexual misconduct; implementation of mandatory bystander and consent training; and work with schools and communities to ensure a joined-up approach to tackle harassment  (p8)
  • However, although many recommendations in the statement have been partially implemented, progress has been inconsistent and slow, and students are not seeing the changes they expect. There is also a lack of standardised practice across the sector, and there is limited evidence that interventions are being evaluated to identify what works  (p5-6)
  • Universities and colleges have prioritised student-to-student sexual misconduct, with more limited interventions in relation to other forms of harassment and sexual misconduct (p34)
  • The evaluation concludes that further regulatory intervention is needed to ensure universities and colleges tackle this issue. It also recommends universities should implement mandatory training for at least some staff in how to handle disclosures, and also mandatory student awareness-raising training and ideally bystander intervention training targeted at key groups. They should also improve their evaluation of what works (p11)
  • Crime Survey for England and Wales statistics show that full-time students are more likely to have experienced sexual assault in the previous year than people in any other occupation type (p4)
  • In higher education contexts, social and institutional pressures may discourage students from making incidents known and seeking to have them addressed. Many still lack information about what to do if an incident occurs, fear that they won’t be taken seriously, or find reporting it a stressful experience with an unsatisfactory outcome (p3)
  • Results from some studies with self-selecting participants suggest that many students do not report or disclose sexual misconduct to their university or college. Common reasons for not disclosing were believing that no action would be taken, perceiving the issue as not sufficiently serious, not knowing who to tell, or fearing they would themselves be blamed (p4)
  • Another study found that fewer than one in ten respondents who experienced sexual misconduct from staff had reported this to their university or college. The most common reason for not reporting was uncertainty over whether the behaviour was sufficiently serious to warrant reporting (p4)
  • Being subjected to sexual misconduct can have a significant detrimental effect on a student’s health, including their mental wellbeing, and on their sense of belonging at university or college. Some victim-survivors, because of the abuse, change their behaviours and lifestyles in ways that lead to hypervigilance, restricted freedom, and isolation (p6)
  • The evaluation is published ahead of consultation proposals for a new condition of registration on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct, which the OfS will publish early in the New Year. 

Implications for governance:

There has been a greater focus in recent years on the prevalence and impact of sexual misconduct in higher education. This has been prompted both by research findings and by personal testimonies in the media and online of students who have been subjected to sexual harassment or assault, for instance through the “Everyone’s Invited” campaign.

Full-time students are more likely to have experienced sexual assault than people in any other occupation grouping. As the Insight Brief makes clear, the impact of this can be devastating, including mental ill health, disrupted study and some students leaving higher education altogether.

Many of the actions taken by universities and colleges in response to the problem of sexual misconduct in higher education predate the publication of the OfS statement on tackling sexual misconduct but the guidance has given added impetus to the work.

Initiatives introduced across the sector covered in the evaluation have included improving or creating new reporting processes and support pathways for students; providing training for staff, students and student leaders; awareness-raising activities, such as running a sexual violence awareness week; producing posters, videos, website and mobile app content; and making links with local specialist support services.

Overall findings from the evaluation suggest that the statement’s initial impact has been in maintaining momentum in the sector. It has increased attention on this topic at more senior leadership and governing body levels.

However, the evaluation has found that this is not the case across all the HE providers consulted during the process. The key ‘take away’ message is that the position and progress being made is highly variable across the sector. As the report points out, there are examples of excellent practice “but also some very poor practice which could be improved significantly”.

Buy-in at leadership level is identified as a key determining factor and governors may want to consider if the issue is being sufficiently prioritised at their institution.

The OfS plans to consult on a new condition of registration to “refocus all universities and colleges” on the issues of preventing and addressing sexual misconduct. It is also developing a prevalence survey of sexual misconduct in higher education in England, the first in the UK, which will allow the OfS, students, universities and colleges to understand the impact of the action that is taken.

Given these plans, it may be timely for governors to review the action that has been undertaken so far at their institution. 

For instance, the report says specialist training should be mandatory at all HE providers for staff handling disclosures, undertaking investigations and sitting on disciplinary panels. It also recommends prevention training for students on awareness, consent and bystander intervention.

The Insight publication also provides useful case studies of action taken at some universities. Another useful resource for comparing policies and approaches is the  information produced by the £4.7 million Catalyst programme, which has funded 119 projects across the sector designed to support effective practice in addressing sexual violence, hate crime and online harassment.

According to the evaluation report, universities and colleges have prioritised mainly student-to-student sexual misconduct, leaving gaps in addressing the full scope of the statement of expectations. Governors will want to note the suggestions that more emphasis is needed on staff-to-student harassment and understanding and tackling online harassment and misconduct.

One example of variability across the sector that governors should note is that only just over half of universities in the UK appear to have signed up to the ban on the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in cases of sexual misconduct, bullying and other forms of harassment, a policy spearheaded by the former universities minister Michelle Donelan. This is described in the report as “a challenge for the sector and the regulator”, with the clear implication that more institutions should adopt a ban.

It is also important to be aware that the OfS reports and recommendations are focussed on regulation in England. As the issues covered are nevertheless of sector-wide interest, governors at institutions outside of England may wish to consider what approaches they are taking to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment, what data they receive on progress, and strategies they have in place for enabling student and staff wellbeing.

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