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"The governor view" - How should universities respond to calls for them to do more to tackle sexual harassment?

“A sharp intake of breath”. That’s how one governor describes the reaction of his university board to a student union report on the alleged incidence of sexual harassment and assault on campus.

The figures shocked governors. “The welfare of students has always been an important issue for us and when this came up at a council meeting it could not be ignored,” he says.

A working party of university staff and students was quickly set up which resulted in a number of changes to streamline the reporting systems, provide more support for victims, training for staff and a better understanding of the issue across the institution. That was three years ago, and since then the policies have been evaluated and changed in response to student and staff feedback.

But while some universities have been taking action, there is concern that others still do not recognise the importance of the issue for staff and students. Nicola Dandridge, the outgoing Chief Executive of the Office for Students (OfS) published a blog in April this year describing her shock at the outpouring of online testimonies from school and university students about the harassment and violence they suffer. 

Shortly afterwards the OfS published detailed guidance telling governing bodies they should ensure that the approach to harassment and sexual misconduct is “adequate and effective”.  It added: “Governing bodies should ensure that risks relating to these issues are identified and effectively mitigated.” 

This month (1 December) in its annual review, the OfS again returned to the issue, saying it will be prioritising it in the coming year and reviewing providers and student responses to prevent and respond to harassment.  “We will then determine how to deliver the changed needed in this area most effectively” it added.

Part of the problem is the lingering influence of the 1994 Zellick report from the UUK’s predecessor body, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, that told universities not to carry out their own disciplinary measures in cases that might constitute a criminal offence, says a student governor at another Russell Group university. The Zellick advice was reversed in 2016, by UUK’s Changing the Culture report and revised guidance, but some members of staff continue to follow it, she says.

 “It very much depends on who the student contacts.  There is no consistency of approach across the sector and even within the same university,” she says. “Even now there are members of staff who fall back on the Zellick principle and tell the student that they need to go to the police, not the university. We need people who understand and are trained in handling cases of sexual violence because for many students there is no certainty about what they are going to get.”

The OfS needs to be more directive and take a stronger stance and put it into the conditions of registration so students know what will happen when they report things, she added.

“There is a lot of ignorance about sexual harassment – there are students who don’t think there is anything wrong with their behaviour and once it is explained them they agree to change. So it’s not just about having the right support and framework but educating students and staff about the issue and changing behaviour,” she said.

Governors who spoke to Advance HE agreed that it is an important issue for the OfS to address, but not all saw the necessity for the regulator to include measures to tackle sexual harassment and assaults in its conditions or registration.

“I don’t think the OfS can decide in detail how the issue should be tackled in lots of different institutions,” a governor at post-92 university said. “Rather than be punitive, it would be better for them to promote – and fund – the sharing of good practice so we can learn from each other.”

She said governors at her institutions were encouraged to have link roles, including one on the response to sexual harassment.

“We keep a check on the figures for reported incidents and outcomes and there has been a big dip over the last year, not surprisingly because students haven’t been on campus. What we are looking at now and trying to assess is whether it has gone online,” she says.

Another governor at a Russell Group university says he believes his institution meets all the OfS’s requirements, but he still would not want it formalised in the registration procedure.

“There are things that the OfS may think are a good thing that turn out to be difficult or even counter-productive in practice. For example, the suggestion that governors should be trained in the issue. We already give up a lot of time free of charge and it’s our job to oversee the executive that run the university and make strategic decisions, not be trained in every aspect,” he says.

At the start of this academic year in September his university introduced mandatory sessions for all new students to make sure they understand what is meant by consent and what constituted harassment.

“The governing body is keen to ensure, as much as we can, that these issues are avoided in the first place,” he says. “We hear about pupils in schools sexting each other and then just a few years later they are with us. Add into the mix our students from abroad who may not understand the laws and expectations of this country and there is a clear need to talk about what good and bad behaviour looks like,” he adds.

Not only is it important to involve the students’ union but also to make sure the issue is seen as a priority, says the governor of a new university.

She adds: “In my experience, it’s vital to have very senior people leading on this issue because if it is categorised as the soft caring side and delegated to junior staff and women - as it often is - as opposed to the really important academic side, then we won’t get the changes we all want to see.”

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