In June 2020, we successfully launched our report into UK universities’ sexual misconduct policies. The response was widespread and solidarity appreicated but we have always emphasised that the issue of sexual violence against students goes beyond university campuses. With this in mind, we continued with our research, this time focusing on colleges and other higher education institutions in the UK. It quickly became clear that despite case studies and news coverage of students being let down by colleges, there was only very limited research on the underlying policies and procedures. We therefore conducted a three-month project analysing college sexual misconduct policies, and found strikingly similar results to those observed for universities.
Our research started with compiling a list of higher education institutions across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This included 162 colleges, representing 118,000 students. As a small team balancing work and university with campaigning, we decided to research a representative sample of 33 colleges. This covered a range of qualifications and subjects, as well as demographic groups. We then analysed the sexual misconduct policy of each college, paying attention to definitions, investigative procedures, support and report tools, staff training, and monitoring processes. From our university research, we were aware that despite promising procedures, institutions do not always implement them effectively. We therefore also searched for case studies of student experiences.
The results revealed that out of thirty three colleges, only three had specific policies on sexual misconduct. Similarly to universities, the majority of procedures were outlined in bullying and harassment policies, as well as general student codes of conduct. This is problematic because the wording is often inappropriate for survivors of sexual misconduct, and there is commonly emphasis on informal resolution. One unique finding was that among 20% of colleges we investigated, misconduct policies were integrated into safeguarding documents. Whilst this is positive in that it protects children and vulnerable adults, there is a gap where students unfitting of this criteria are not covered by any policy. Furthermore, these documents are created for staff, making it difficult for students to understand the investigative procedure.
In addition to these findings, we also discovered that 84% of colleges did not have a specific tool for reporting sexual misconduct. Instead, students were instructed to fill out a general complaints form, or email a member of staff. Crucially, the staff listed were not specially trained for dealing with sexual misconduct, which can deter students from making or upholding a report. There is also the question of how reports are being monitored and assessed at these colleges, as there is no centralised system. Finally, we found that 50% of colleges had no policy on sanctions for perpetrators, which may lead to unrealistic outcome expectations for survivors.
However, our research also revealed some promising findings. This included detailed definitions, anonymous reporting tools, support signposting, and step-by-step guides on the investigative procedure. We also found some survivor-led considerations, such as consulting with survivors on their desired case outcome. Furthermore, a number of policies acknowledged the differential experiences of survivors, and encouraged a case-by-case approach. Finally, a few procedures covered both historic and recent allegations of sexual misconduct, which is a great example of best practice and rarely observed among university policies.
Based on our findings, we recommend that colleges urgently review their sexual misconduct policies. To protect students, institutions must create a separate, dedicated policy for dealing with sexual violence. This should be clear and easily accessible, with step-by-step guides on the reporting and investigative procedure, as well as potential sanctions for perpetrators. Colleges should also implement report and support tools, and employ specially trained sexual violence advisors. Furthermore, there must be an attempt to monitor cases, and evaluate the effectiveness of policies. As these recommendations broadly align with our university research, we suggest viewing the report for more detailed insight. This can be accessed by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.