Higher education staff support new legal duty for universities to prevent and respond effectively to sexual violence and harassment, study shows

4 December 2019

Higher education staff are in favour of new legal duties for universities to prevent and respond effectively to sexual violence and harassment on campus, according to a new study.

UK universities are implementing new initiatives – but “significant barriers” are preventing further work to stop abuse from taking place, the study shows.

University workers who were questioned were also in favour of a new Kite Mark system to embed accountability.

Experts from the University of Central Lancashire, University of Exeter and Durham University investigated university responses to the 2016 Universities UK Taskforce report on tackling violence against women, hate crime and harassment. The taskforce recommended commitment from senior leadership, institution-wide approaches and sharing of good practice.

The study found reforms made are being driven by individuals, rather than institutions. The study warns many universities do not have a specific sexual violence and harassment policy, and some of the policies currently in operation are inappropriate or ineffective.

A total of 134 university staff – many of whose role was to prevent sexual harassment or assault - participated anonymously in the survey.

Many respondents thought that mandatory legal obligations would assist in overcoming institutional challenges. 85 per cent of respondents said they wanted to see a mandatory legal duty on universities to prevent and respond effectively to SV.

Most – 88 per cent - respondents said the Office for Students should be accountable to the Government for implementing the UUK recommendations and 94 per cent said universities – particularly senior leaders - should be accountable for their implementation. The Kite Mark was the most popular device for embedding accountability, followed by a measure in league tables.

Professor Khatidja Chantler from the University of Central Lancashire, who was part of the research team said: “Fears of reputational risk and lack of sustainable resources appear to prevent universities from embedding this agenda into their core activities, including research activities. Examples of best practice were found where universities acknowledged the extent of the problem and the gendered nature of sexual harassment and violence and adopted a whole institution approach.”

Around half of respondents – 78 - indicated that their university was only in the initial stages of the addressing sexual violence and harassment. A total of 11 indicated that they were either right at the start of developing the agenda at their institution, 28 said they had started work, but had not yet had a review of their work or identified next steps and 10 had a strategy and working group but were yet to launch any interventions.

"There are a number of examples of good practice, but overall there are significant barriers in moving forward to implement an agenda in higher education to prevent and address sexual violence and harassment."

Out of 68 respondents only 17 indicated that they have met no challenges to making changes at their institutions. Others said they had faced institutional resistance and lack of resources - 37 out of 68 respondents indicated that their institution was verbally supportive but had not committed resources such as money or staff time to realise it.

Some of those who took part in the research said there was a lack of joined up thinking at senior levels, with some DVC and other senior staff very supportive, but others were more concerned with institutional reputation and potential distress to students – 33 respondents said their institution either worried about the reputational risks of pursuing the agenda or feared that by pursuing it might worry students disproportionately.

Professor Catherine Donovan from Durham University, Department of Sociology, said: “The study suggested that, even where the remit for promoting the UUK recommendations are embedded in colleagues roles it was still the case that it is individuals, acting as champions, who are crucial in whether universities really engage with the agenda for change.

In some cases, individuals were working on this agenda on top of their workload with varying degrees of support from their managers to do this. Often individuals sought allies from across the university, including from students, to endeavour to promote collective pressure for change yet still some participants reflected that they felt that the university systems were resistant to them. The role of senior management in being visibly pro-active in supporting the agenda for change was often described as being either the enabler needed or, where it was absent, the reason for the barriers faced.”

Dr Rachel Fenton, from the University of Exeter Law School, also part of the research team, added: “It is critical universities and the OfS are held to account for delivering this agenda. Without mandatory legal duties it is unlikely that universities will implement the recommendations, leaving women students unsafe at university. In short, we need new legislation.”  She continued: “There are a number of examples of good practice, but overall there are significant barriers in moving forward to implement an agenda in higher education to prevent and address sexual violence and harassment.”

The study says senior university leaders should support and promote their institutions being involved in measures to prevent and address sexual violence and harassment to address and pre-empt fears about reputational risk. It also recommends universities dedicate appropriate time and resources, and work in partnership with people across and outside the university. It also recommends that academic staff are involved in research and evaluation, and that universities should appoint “champions” to promote change. The study includes a checklist for universities to use to measure and map their progress.