Welcome to the last part of the RTC Reviews series on the UUK reports. In the 2019 publication, UUK made a series of recommendations of what universities should do to tackle sexual misconduct. Whilst we won’t include every single one here, we will discuss the ones we see as most important. Firstly, language. Language is key. If students don’t know how to define sexual misconduct, they might not know that they’ve experienced it. Alternatively, they might be unable to articulate their experiences, preventing them from seeking support. A third of universities would like “a common approach to terminology and language” (p.9). The 2016 Pinsent Masons guidelines define sexual misconduct, and must become common knowledge. Universities already have the basis for the language surrounding sexual violence, they just need to use it. Next, UUK argued that universities must have the infrastructure in place to deal with an increase in disclosures/ reports (p.27). If they don’t have enough staff with adequate training, or existing reporting tools and policies, they cannot even begin to assess allegations. UUK recommendations included “Appointing a full-time permanent member of staff to focus on prevention and response initiatives for sexual violence” and “Training pro-vice-chancellors and other senior staff involved in the disciplinary process on sexual violence” (p.28). Some universities appear to take this on board. In Durham’s latest report, the institution said investigators had been struggling with the workload, so the university intends to hire more. Obviously university budgets are tight, particularly due to Covid. That said, investment in tackling sexual violence will make campuses safer for both students and staff, and could well prevent incidents from taking place. Or, if and when they do occur, universities can help to minimise the resulting trauma. As for senior leaders, their response is essential. They set the tone and the budgets. If they aren’t actively involved in dealing with cases, or in providing resources for staff to do so, then they won’t actually solve the problem. They’ll just continue to sweep it under the carpet. UUK can help with this. Its report highlighted that areas requiring more guidance include “conducting investigations,” “Understanding the legal status of sanctions and the extent to which they can be enforced,” and “Categorisation of offences and sanctions used across the sector” (p.63). Again, this comes down to leadership and communication. UUK must support its institutions, and institutions must support the students who are paying so much to be there. They deserve to get their money’s worth. Furthermore, evaluating both the data they receive and their responses must become a priority for universities. They must understand the scale of the problem and act accordingly. Over a third of universities surveyed stated that evaluating interventions needs further development, and UUK said it will assist with this (p.10). UUK stated it should conduct surveys every two years to monitor progress (p.16), and we suggest that universities do the same. This would allow universities to more easily identify best practices, and areas that require more funding and resources. Hence, they will be able to better support their students. The last area we wish to discuss is that of early prevention. UUK suggests that its providers commit to more engagement with schools (pp.11-16). We think this could be done through university counsellors or specialist staff visiting schools and giving presentations on consent. They could also discuss the different types of sexual misconduct, provide clear information about where to seek support and the consequences of sexual violence, for both victims and perpetrators. There are also usually freshers packs given to students in university accommodation. Providing the information here in the form of leaflets and also a talk about consent from the Halls representatives could go a long way towards setting a boundary for incoming freshers. Universities could also work together in this. Cities with multiple universities such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester could form some sort of coalition, jointly investing in spreading the message that no really does mean no in schools. That way, students learn about this issue from a young age. Universities seem keen to make their students into active bystanders, and the sooner that someone has the necessary tools to intervene, the better the outcome for everyone involved. More importantly, students will learn that universities and wider society really does have zero tolerance for sexual assault. We firmly believe that all universities should fully implement the Pinsent Masons guidelines. Yes, they aren’t compulsory, but they provide an essential framework for developing and implementing policies and procedures. Failure to do so leaves students unprotected. If universities offer a uniform response, students won’t risk falling through the gaps at institutions that don’t take the issue seriously. All in all, there does seem to be more awareness of sexual violence than there was several years ago. Evidently, though, universities still have a long way to go.
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