Here at Reclaim the Campus, one of our main areas of focus is university policy on sexual misconduct. These policies are not compulsory. Many don’t, meaning that sexual misconduct is often swept under the carpet as part of Bullying, Harassment or Respect procedures. We think it deserves attention. In 2016, Universities UK published its ‘Changing the Culture’ report, in response to concerns over the growing number of sexual assaults at higher education institutions.
Its findings make for interesting, although alarming, reading. In a nutshell, universities needed to step up. Senior leadership need to assume responsibility and make preventing and dealing with sexual assault a priority. Institutions need university wide action.
“Lad culture” was listed as one cause of “the normalisation of sexist and misogynistic behaviour” on campus (p.19). So far, so good. Speaking from personal experience, lad culture feels very exclusionary. Questioning it is boring and uncool. Better to be a lad and get shitfaced, right? After all, everyone else does on sports night at the SU.
Joking aside, the report also highlighted that “underreporting and the absence of clear, robust reporting mechanisms” are significant problems for universities (p.27). The two issues go hand in hand. If students know that their universities don't have clear guidelines in place, or that these guidelines aren’t adhered to, they feel deterred from speaking out. Examples of barriers to reporting included fear of a “counter-productive” response from the university, lack of information on how to report, shame and victims believing the issue isn’t “seriously enough” (p.28). Universities must support students in coming forward.
The report stated that the “duty of care to victims/survivors should be underpinned by an institutional commitment to take seriously and at face value any disclosure of sexual violence” (p.53). To make this happen, UUK recommended holding senior staff accountable (pp.50-51). They are the ones who, according to UUK, must be responsible for overseeing and implementing disciplinary procedures, as well as making sure that staff dealing with cases receive appropriate training (p.40). By encouraging universities to take a top-down approach, UUK indicated that issues of sexual misconduct impacted everyone, and university leaders had to ensure that their institutions are a safe space. So, how can vice-chancellors do that?
UUK intended to help them with that. Among other things, UUK wanted to update its original guidance. It aimed to revise its 1994 Zellick Guidelines, and update advice for university procedures. Speaking of procedures, UUK stated universities must have clear policies and procedures that “should not contradict each other” (p.51). Senior leaders should ensure that institutions have specialist staff, such as dedicated Sexual Violence Liaison Officers (p.52). Similarly, it was important to create links with external specialists, such as local SARCs, the police and NHS (pp.41-43). This means that students have a network of resources to fall back on, if they need it. It means they will be able to make more informed decisions. And as for students, UUK recommended focusing on bystander-intervention programmes (p.34). The idea is that witnesses will feel empowered to intervene, creating a more positive and proactive culture on campus. I see where they’re coming from. It would have helped me when I needed it. But, is it putting too much emphasis on the wrong party? Shouldn’t we be telling students not to sexually assault people before we tell passers by they should put themselves in harm's way and intervene?
Another issue I have with the report is its limited focus on intersectionality. The topic is briefly mentioned in relation to staff training. According to UUK, staff needed to have a thorough knowledge of intersectionality to comprehend how issues of sex and race can impact a student’s university experience, and by extension, their experience of reporting misconduct (p.40).
I haven’t seen any statistics to suggest that Black students and those from racially minoritized backgrounds are disproportionately affected by sexual misconduct. However, given that racism is widespread at universities, I do think that intersectionality needs to be further emphasised. It should be embedded into bystander training, into training for ISVAs and for staff handling sexual misconduct allegations. I’d say it’s something worth looking into.
Although these guidelines are a good starting point, they aren’t compulsory, or always enforced. Universities do not have “mandatory guidelines” on investigating and recording sexual misconduct allegations. They should. Otherwise students and their stories are left to the whims of senior staff and policies that may or may not be comprehensive enough. Other publications have indicated that universities are starting to implement UUK’s suggestions, but whether or not this is working is a story for another post.