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Responses to our open letter

On 10 November we sent an open letter to several organisations in the higher education sector, signed (at the time) by over 100 HE staff, students, and organisations. This letter was formulated in response to the Al Jazeera coverage Degrees of Abuse which documented the attempts of students and staff members at two UK universities to make complaints of sexual harassment. One of the key takeaway points was the difficulty that higher education institutions (HEIs) were having in handling reports where multiple students/staff members were reporting or had concerns about the person. In order to build on the momentum from this important piece of reporting, we wrote our open letter, addressed to HE sector (and other related) organisations who have responsibilities relating to complaints handling. The letter was covered in the HE press, in particular in University Business, Times Higher, and Research Professional.

We have now had responses from most of the organisations that the open letter was addressed to, outlined below. Below, I’ll talk through the responses and share links where possible, and outline what we hope next steps will be. There’s a lot more to be said about these responses than I can fit in one blog post, but here’s an initial overview.

The organisations who devise guidance that the sector follows, and therefore from whom it is most important to see taking action collectively, are the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA), who devise guidance on student complaints handling; ACAS, who devise guidance on how employers (not just in HE but all employers in the UK) should handle grievances and disciplinary processes; Universities UK, who published the Changing the Culture guidance in 2015; and in England, the Office for Students (OfS), the regulator for HE.

To start with the final response, the OfS response states that they are waiting for their external evaluation of the statement of expectations and so do not propose to take any steps in response to our letter. The evaluation is due to be carried out Jan-Aug 2022 so we don’t expect an evaluation report til the autumn, and any further steps not til after that. The OfS don’t propose to do anything in the meantime, which is a pity because a proactive step they could take would be to ask for clearer guidance from relevant organisations such as the OIA and ACAS, so that by the time they are ready to propose next steps or regulation, there is at least some detailed guidance to follow.

The OIA response includes their usual preamble that they are not able to look at the complaint itself, just the handling of the complaint etc etc. They refer to their 2018 briefing note (published in response to our report Silencing Students) as well as the case study in their 2020 Annual Report. The latter is much more useful than the former, and we hope they will continue to publish similar case studies. But there remains major gaps in their existing guidance, not least in their advice on student complaints about staff members, as discussed in our article here. However, this statement seems new:

“Where the provider is aware of other similar concerns raised about the behaviour of the same individual, we would expect the provider to give careful consideration as to whether, when and how those issues may be considered during any disciplinary process.”

While this paragraph may seem – and indeed is – vague and weak, it signals to HEIs (‘providers’ in OIA-speak) that if they do treat complaints or ‘concerns’ about the same reported party individually rather than collectively, they have to be able to explain why. It’s a step.

The Universities UK response points to their forthcoming guidance on sharing data in harassment cases, and on staff-to-student sexual misconduct. Both are due out in early 2022. It’s worth noting that the working group for the staff-student sexual misconduct guidance, which two members of The 1752 Group have sat on, was first convened in 2018, so this guidance has been a long time coming. We have had a hand in this delay, because we advised UUK in early 2020 that the draft they had needed substantially more work to be fit for purpose. We last commented on a draft in early 2021, so we haven’t seen the final version. However, we are pleased to see the following sentence:

“Following discussions with AMOSSHE, and the organisation, Universities Human Resources (UHR), we agree that UUK will work with the sector to understand how the frameworks [staff-to-student sexual misconduct guidance, and guidance on sharing data in harassment cases] have been used and implemented and this will include a specific reference to how universities are managing multiple complaints about the same individual.”

We look forward to hearing more detail about what this will look like. We ourselves will not be able to be involved in this process. We have done weeks and weeks of (unpaid) work for UUK over the past few years and it is not sustainable. While of course we want our research and the perspectives of survivors and complainants to feed into their work, there is a limit to how much we can do on top of (already demanding) day jobs, and we have more than reached that limit. That’s a story for another time about whose time gets paid for, or acknowledged, in this work.

ACAS’ response is a fairly brief one via email. They note that this is ‘an incredibly challenging area, and one that Acas is hugely concerned about’ and point us towards the EHRC guidance on sexual harassment and racial harassment in HE (which, just to be clear, we read when they came out). In positive news, they have invited us to meet, which we will do in the new year. ACAS are key players in this work as they devise guidance for staff grievance and disciplinary processes nationally, beyond HE, and their guidance is extremely important for HR practice. Our experience of discussions with ACAS is that – perhaps due to their national remit providing guidance for employers of all sizes and types across the UK – they tend to act very slowly. Therefore, while we need them to take the lead on this, this may take a long time. For example, we are aware that concerns were raised to them several years ago about their guidance on their website around reporting to the police in relation to sexual misconduct cases, but this was only changed last year, following a meeting that we, along with consultant Helen Mott, arranged with them to discuss this (on top of demands from other activists/academics). As a result, we would suggest that sector organisations, including UUK, UHR, and others, could be helpful by encouraging ACAS to provide guidance in this area, and to do so sooner rather than later.

We were also pleased to receive invitations to meet with the Academic Registrars’ Council (ARC) (not included in the original letter but we sent it to them subsequently), and AMOSSHE. I’ll attend the ARC executive committee meeting in January and will ask them to ask OIA and ACAS for clearer guidance in this area. Finally, Universities HR also responded, and organised an event on 10 December 2021 on sexual misconduct. We weren’t invited, but other experts were, and we are happy that they are leading the discussion themselves rather than relying on us to do so – it’s appropriate that they should be leading work in this area, and my workload is at the stage where I’m delighted not to be invited to things. We hope that any forthcoming work that they carry out will draw on complainants’ and survivors’ voices, and to this end we have asked them to join us in discussions with ACAS on this issue.

Out of the four devolved governments who we also copied into the letter, we have only had a response from the Scottish Government, suggesting that they feed our letter into the work of the Equally Safe in Colleges and Universities Core Leadership Group, which is an appropriate and positive step. There has been no response from the other governments copied into the letter.

What’s missing?

Most of the sector organisation responses refer to the forthcoming Universities UK guidance on GDPR in complaints processes, and on staff-student sexual misconduct, both of which we have commented on drafts of. The timing of our letter – following the Al Jazeera series Degrees of Abuse – means that these two forthcoming pieces of guidance (both months or even years overdue) can be pointed to as evidence that these issues are being addressed. Without seeing the final versions we can’t say whether they are indeed adequate. Universities UK, in their response to us, have stressed that these pieces of guidance will be ‘living documents’ and will need revisions – an approach we agree with. However, areas that we are concerned may remain unaddressed by forthcoming guidance on GDPR and staff-student sexual misconduct include:

  • What action should organisations take if they have received a number of informal or anonymous reports, but no formal report?
  • What is the status of anonymous reports that are submitted alongside a named, formal report? (there is mention in previous ACAS guidance that these might be able to be used alongside formal reports but this point needs further clarification)
  • Do complainants have the right to submit formal reports as a group, rather than as individuals, and to have these considered together rather than separately?

We have suggested ways forward on the first two points in our sector guidance and briefing note. UCL and Culture Shift also produced this helpful podcast on ‘environmental investigations’ in response to the first point. But these steps are only going to be taken by the most proactive organisations, if they are not explicitly made part of guidance from an established organisation in the sector such as UHR, ACAS or the OIA. The third point – about complaints being considered individually rather than as a group – was not explicitly addressed in our sector guidance but we did recommend that ‘it is possible to inform potential complainants that there are or have been other complaints against the same perpetrator, without revealing the identities of the other complainants’ (p.18). I haven’t seen any evidence that this is happening, but I live in hope. More generally, despite being careful to formulate our sector guidance in ways that fit with existing guidance and are in line with current equalities and employment law, we have still encountered nervousness from the sector in implementing it. As a result, we think that any further guidance in this area needs to come from the sector itself – and from the organisations named in our letter – in order for it to be as effective as possible.

What is very discouraging is that 5 years on from founding The 1752 Group (in August 2016) some of the key issues that need to be addressed in this area – as in the questions raised above – remain outstanding. What we really need now, is some leadership from sector organisations on these difficult questions – not just the easier ones. We hope that Universities HR will step forward on some of these issues, following their recent event. We have seen leadership from UUK, to a degree, but they continue to do this work on the cheap, relying on free labour from anyone who will provide it, and such an approach is inevitably going to be patchy. More generally, there’s only so much that we ourselves, and other activists and leaders in this space, can do on tackling these tough questions when the responses we get from the sector tend to replicate the blurriness of the legalities in many of the areas under discussion, rather than being bold in trying to find ways forward that will actually work for complainants and survivors.

In better news, Erin Shannon and I have finished data collection for the ESRC-funded project Higher Education After #MeToo, which is focusing on complainants’ experiences of reporting sexual misconduct (staff-staff, staff-student, student-student) since 2017. We are grateful to everyone who has spoken to us as part of this project, and will be reporting on this research from the summer onwards, and we hope to be able to use this more recent data to inform ongoing conversations about improving institutional responses. We are also bolstered in our work on group complaints by Sara Ahmed’s brilliant new book Complaint. The final section of her book – co-authored by The 1752 Group co-founder and director Tiffany Page – focuses on ‘complaint collectives’ and the power of these as activist groups. Perhaps, as new ‘complaint collectives’ arise, then the urgency of HEIs being able to adequately listen to, and act on, the concerns they raise, will become even clearer.

Anna Bull, 23 December 2021

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