‘Poor’ progress on tackling sexual misconduct in universities

Evaluation report finds some institutions ‘slow to prioritise this issue’, leading to need for more regulation to ensure ‘consistent approach’ across sector

November 10, 2022
A woman with "stop" written on her palm, symbolising harassment
Source: iStock

“Poor” progress made by some English universities on tackling sexual misconduct demonstrates how self-regulation alone is not enough to address the scale of the problem, an Office for Students evaluation report says. 

The sector regulator is set to make dealing with sexual misconduct a condition of registration for universities after it found some institutions were lagging behind in efforts to tackle harassment, with students “not seeing the changes they expect”.

A statement of expectations was published by the OfS in 2021 after research showed students are three times more likely to experience incidents such as sexual assault, which can lead to them developing mental health issues and dropping out of their studies.

An evaluation report assessing the effectiveness of this intervention – based on a survey of 100 universities and colleges – has found that many recommendations in the statement have only been partially implemented, with progress at some institutions “inconsistent and slow”.

While some providers were said to have introduced “excellent” interventions such as consent training, appointing specially trained staff to support victims and working closer with schools on a “joined-up” approach, others “have been slower to prioritise this issue”, the report says, with some demonstrating “very poor practice which could be improved significantly”. Overall, the OfS said it was concerned by a “lack of standardised practice across the sector”.

Even where appropriate policies, systems and processes are in place within providers, “there is not always a matching willingness to be transparent and to proactively encourage students to report incidents through awareness-raising campaigns and information-sharing, particularly relating to outcomes of disclosures, reports and disciplinary proceedings”, the report, produced by SUMS Consulting, says. 

It concludes that the statement of expectations has therefore “not been a sufficient catalyst for change in its current form and that further change is necessary”. The OfS said that it would publish consultation proposals for its new condition of registration on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct – which could see noncompliant universities fined or subjected to other sanctions – early in the new year.  

“Every student should be able to participate in all aspects of their university experience without being subject to harassment or sexual misconduct. Our statement of expectations was a call to action for universities and colleges to improve their approach to these important issues,” said Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS. 

“The evaluation reveals that, while progress is being made, self-regulation has not been sufficient to deliver consistent, effective approaches for students across the sector. Students are still not feeling appropriately supported by universities and colleges. This points to the need for a different approach to prevent and tackle harassment and sexual misconduct, which is why we will consult on a new condition of registration next year.”

Several recommendations about what more providers, the OfS and government can do to tackle sexual misconduct are made in the report. These include appointing a member of the senior leadership team to have overall accountability for the issue, introducing more training for staff and students and reviewing reporting systems so they are “clearer and readily accessible”.

Data focusing specifically on the experience of students was found to be “limited” and so the OfS is exploring whether to run a national survey of students to better understand the extent of the problem and its impact.

Ms Lapworth said “much of the available data relies on self-reporting and does not provide an accurate account of the scale of these issues in higher education” and so a pilot survey will be carried out next year. 

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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