We publish a series of blog posts on different issues relating to sexual misconduct within higher education. We hope these provide information and links to research and resources that are helpful to those working in the sector.
Our take on the new OfS Consultation – 2 March 2023
Last month, Office for Students (Ofs), the higher education regulator for England, launched a consultation on whether to make the tackling of sexual misconduct a condition of registration for all higher education institutions. As we wrote last week in a Twitter thread, while we welcome change, we hold some serious concerns around the proposed approaches. In short, the OfS are proposing requiring higher education institutions (HEIs) to either (a) require staff to declare any relationships with students and to keep these on an internal register, or (b) to prohibit these relationships outright. The latter would be a significant change.
A handful of HEIs already outright prohibit student-staff relationships. Many others currently go as far as requiring staff to declare them, and some of these will take disciplinary action against staff – including for gross misconduct – for the failure to declare. Others, like the University of Manchester, have a way to go. The UoM’s Consensual Relationships Policy still states that ‘The University does not wish to prevent liaisons between staff and students and it relies upon the integrity of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.’ We called out this phrasing and general approach in our 2018 report Silencing Students as hugely problematic given that it puts the onus on the person who may be experiencing abuse to ensure the abuse doesn’t happen. Either of the proposals from the OfS would make some difference in this area. However, our view is that this choice is about the lesser of two evils; both have their flaws.
Response to our open letter – December 2021
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.
Environmental investigations in practice: reflections on the Howlett Brown report into UCL – June 2022
There’s growing interest in the HE sector in ‘environmental investigations’ to tackle staff sexual misconduct. A helpful piece of work in this area was published in June 2022, when UCL published a report from HR agency Howlett Brown following an environmental investigation which they had commissioned into the Barlett School of Architecture (BSA) at UCL. It was was commissioned by UCL after public coverage of issues of poor culture, bullying and sexual misconduct arising over a period of time at the Bartlett.
Sexual misconduct and online teaching environments – September 2020
Sexual misconduct by staff towards students happens in physical environments and it happens online. When teaching will now happen predominately and privately in the intimate spaces of our homes in the coming term, how do we as educators conduct teaching and learning for students in ways that engage a professional relationship?
A letter of resignation – August 2020
A friend of mine is leaving academia. I’ve been affected by her decision in a way I didn’t expect: I am relieved. She’s a good friend. The same unpleasant characters and unexpected injustices altered our lives, and because of that we will always be friends whether or not we have similar jobs. I am relieved because I feel that she has come to the end of a labyrinthine path to closure.
Should sexual and romantic relationships between staff and students be prohibited? (Yes) – February 2020
UCL has recently implemented a new policy prohibiting sexual and romantic relationships between staff and students where there is a direct teaching relationship. To our knowledge, they are one of only a few higher education institutions in the UK to do this, the others being Roehampton University, University of Greenwich, and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. By contrast, in the US there has been a move in recent years towards prohibiting all relationships between faculty (academic staff) and undergraduate students, and between faculty and postgraduate students where there is a teaching relationship. This move by UCL could be seen as the first in a shift towards the UK following US practice in this area, as well as reflecting the heightened awareness of gendered power imbalances that the #MeToo movement is engendering.
Catalysts and barriers to reporting: Part II – November 2019
In the first instalment of this two-part blog post, I explored catalysts to reporting that were identified by interviewees in the Silencing Students report, and what institutions can learn from these to increase reporting. In Part two, below, I outline barriers to reporting and explore how institutions might mitigate or address these barriers. While the post focuses on students who are reporting, many of these points will also apply to supporting reporting from staff as well. In addition, Silencing Students included interviews only with students who had attempted to report to the police or their institution and did not include those who had not attempted to report, so there are likely to be more barriers that are not identified here. Nevertheless, the data we have allows areas of action to be identified, and below I’ve expanded on the barriers and outlined actions institutions can take to address these.
Catalysts and barriers to reporting: Part I – November 2019
Most higher education institutions (HEIs) appear to work on the presumption that a student will, on being subject to staff sexual misconduct, recognise it as problematic, know where to look up the relevant policy, and report it immediately as a formal complaint, on an individual basis.
This is simply not how it happens. Consistent findings around sexual and domestic abuse in society as well as within HEIs demonstrate that most people do not report such experiences to their institution or the police at all. For example, in the National Union of Students/The 1752 Group report ‘Power in the Academy’, only 10% of respondents who had experienced sexualised behaviour from staff reported this to their institution (2018).
“What happens at conference, stays at conference” – May 2019
The Academic Conference: a meeting of great minds; a forum for debating the newest ideas, for revealing incredible discoveries, and for challenging hardened dogma. We laugh about the quirks of our conferences, the one guy who always has a “comment, rather than a question”, or the awkward standing dance the session chair does when someone has overrun their time. Phil Baty, of Times Higher Education, recently tweeted a light-hearted request “Ok, what’s the most terrible behaviour you have witnessed at an academic conference?” and received an unexpected reaction. What happened on conference refused to stay on conference, as women described the sexual misconduct they had suffered and endured at conferences. For them, their biggest worry wasn’t whether the coffee break was condensed, it was whether they would be followed back to their hotel room.
Research Integrity and Sexual Misconduct: A shared solution – July 2018
Yesterday marked the release of a new report on research integrity, produced by the Commons science and technology committee, which calls for a national committee on the subject of research misconduct .
The definition of research misconduct has been defined in the 2012 UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity  (see below image), a document which came out of a working group representing universities, government departments and major funders of UK research. A search through both the original concordat and the new Commons report shows no mention of ‘harassment’ or ‘bullying’, or ‘sexual misconduct’.