OfS plans powers over universities on handling sexual misconduct

English regulator ‘moving forward’ with registration condition and student survey that could spotlight individual universities for intervention

October 12, 2022

The Office for Students plans to introduce a condition of registration for institutions on dealing with sexual misconduct, alongside a survey of students, potentially allowing it to identify universities where there is “high prevalence and low reporting”.

Susan Lapworth, the English regulator’s chief executive, announced the moves at a hearing of the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee.

If registration conditions are breached, the OfS has the power to levy fines against universities, or even block their students from accessing Student Loans Company funding.

In 2021, the OfS published a statement of expectations for institutions on preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct affecting students. The OfS expects an independent evaluation of the impact of that statement “imminently” but has had an “early readout”, said Ms Lapworth.

That shows universities “reporting they have taken a range of actions, improved their systems and processes”, said Ms Lapworth.

But the report also asked the views of students – where it finds progress has been “patchy” and “too slow”, with the OfS “not seeing the impact we would have expected”, she added.

The OfS, said Ms Lapworth, had “signalled to the sector when we published [the statement of expectations] that if that didn’t do the trick…then we were going to return and look at introducing a condition of registration, which has sharper, mandatory requirements set into it”.

“I can tell you today that we plan to move forward with that work,” she added.

“We’re working on a condition of registration that we would consult on early in the New Year, I think. Subject to the consultation, that would put this area on a sharper regulatory footing – it would put in place mandatory requirements and it would allow us then to intervene where we saw concerns in a particular university.”

On data on sexual misconduct, Ms Lapworth said the last crime survey in England and Wales showed full-time students were “three times more likely than any other occupational group to experience sexual assault”, with numbers being higher for women than men.

But a sector prevalence survey was “necessary to tell us who this is happening to, the kinds of students it’s happening to”, as well as “where it’s happening and when it’s happening”, she added.

“I’m able to tell you today that we’ve begun work to design and deliver the first prevalence survey for higher education,” said Ms Lapworth. “We think that is a really important step forward.”

This would “help universities to understand the patterns in their institution, target their interventions”, she continued.

While it would be possible to carry out a “whole student population survey similar to other sorts of surveys that run in the higher education sector”, that would be “really expensive”, she also said. It would also be possible to carry out a “carefully constructed sampling approach across the sector”.

Ms Lapworth said that the aim was to introduce the new registration condition for the start of the next academic year in September, and for the prevalence survey to be run “in parallel so those two things come together”.

She added: “If we can collect prevalence data that gives us a picture across the sector as a whole, and an understanding of which kinds of students in which contexts are affected by this, and if we can see that for individual universities, that lets us target our interventions. So, a university with high prevalence and low reporting would perhaps raise concerns for us and we would then want to understand in detail what was going on there, and that would allow us to focus our effort.”

Andrea Jenkyns, the skills minister, who also appeared before the committee, said there should be “a zero-tolerance approach to this”.

She added that she “100 per cent” supported “a registration condition to protect women from sexual harassment on campus. We’ve made it clear as a department we do support that.”

Asked how much power the OfS should have in response to any failings by universities, Ms Jenkyns said that “if there’s examples of universities not following the guidance…then there needs to be consequences.” She added: “Does it mean universities are no longer part of the OfS?”

But she continued that she did not “want to jump the gun”, adding that “we really do need to wait for this report” on the statement of expectations.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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