Strategic priorities for higher education

The 1752 Group Strategic Priorities on Staff-Student Sexual Misconduct

27 February 2017

These are our strategic priorities for the higher education sector in the UK to begin to address staff-student sexual misconduct. They are not listed in order, but need to be enacted together as part of an overall, wide-ranging and comprehensive approach to this issue.

These priorities are a living document and are intended to generate discussion and dialogue. We welcome feedback from those working in the sector on related issues.

  1. Implement an enforceable national code of conduct that clarifies professional boundaries. Address the issue of staff/student relationships directly within institutions.

Currently there are blurred lines around the professional relationship between staff and students in higher education. This means that university staff who wish to abuse their position of power find it possible to do so. It also makes it more difficult for students to make complaints, as they may be unsure what behaviour is acceptable. A national conversation is required within the sector around the nature of professional boundaries between staff and students in higher education.

A code of conduct should be produced for all academic and professional staff that includes what is expected of university staff, and addresses directly the power involved in staff and student relationships, sexual or otherwise, as well as the complexity of consent in such relationships of power. This code of conduct needs to be a living document, informing induction of new staff, on going training for existing staff, and cultural changes within institutions.

Institutions must have a policy on staff-student sexual relationships. This needs to specify the actions to be taken should a relationship occur. It should include continued monitoring of the relationship. This must include all university staff and students, irrespective of the role of the staff member and whether they have direct or indirect responsibility for the student’s academic progress.

Discussion within the sector is urgently needed on how this code of conduct and data collection and reporting on sexual misconduct could be linked to mechanisms of enforcement such as funding from research councils, Athena SWAN awards, or membership of the Higher Education Academy.

  1. Develop a reporting and complaints process for sexual misconduct/assault, which is sensitive to race/gender identity/sexuality/ability/undisclosed mental health issues

Generic anti-harassment policies and complaints procedures are inadequate for dealing with staff sexual misconduct. Under such policies, those experiencing sexual misconduct are extremely unlikely to report what has happened. Therefore, higher education institutions need to implement a bespoke reporting and complaints policy and process specifically for sexual misconduct (both student and staff). The process needs to enable anonymity when the student requests it or is at risk either mentally, emotionally or physically. Such risk is to be determined by the student. These procedures need to be developed in consultation with student unions and sector experts on sexual and gender based violence. All investigations should be carried out by an independent specialist. We recommend following a model similar to that of Professor Westmarland’s report into the University of Sussex.

Additionally, an independent trained specialist should support students going through the reporting and complaints process/es. That specialist should hold a permanent office linked to the university (see priority 3). The specialist role could include, but not be limited to: pastoral care; building links between internal and external support staff; signposting for students; providing student advocacy throughout the complaints process; data collection within universities; training; and implementing best practice. This role is not designed to protect the institution; it is principally for student advocacy.

  1. Establish an independent national office for sexual misconduct advocacy and support, with specialist sexual misconduct advisors located within each institution.

Currently, students attempting to disclose the sexual misconduct of a member of university staff often have a long battle ahead of them. Lodging a formal complaint and following it through the complaints process is time-consuming, stressful, and requires the skills to deal with university policies and procedures. In addition, as the Guardian’s investigation has shown, there is inadequate data monitoring by institutions of staff-student sexual misconduct. Therefore, a national office for the prevention of sexual misconduct in higher education and the provision of advocacy and support for students is needed. The Department for Education should centrally fund this or the Government Equalities Office and the higher education sector. Each institution should have a designated, permanent officer on campus or based within a specialist sexual violence organisation locally who specifically supports both staff and students who need to report sexual assault, violence and forms of sexual misconduct (see priority 2). In order to start developing and storing data on sexual misconduct, this specialist office would hold all institutional data in this area including reports and complaints that are anonymous or even withdrawn.

We recommend that this office manage regular climate surveys for all universities on sexual misconduct in all forms, and require each institution to survey its employees and students. This survey must ensure it provides an intersectional approach and be sensitive to how students of colour, students with disabilities, trans students, non-binary students and LGBTQ students may experience forms of sexual misconduct and difficulties in reporting.

  1. Ensure all institutions record data and make publicly available reports on all allegations of sexual misconduct.

There is an urgent need within the sector for accurate and comprehensive recording and reporting of all allegations of sexual misconduct. This is required in order to understand the scale of the problem and to enable institutions to implement appropriate policies and practices for their campus and make long-lasting change to organisational cultures. At present the vast majority of higher education institutions do not provide public reporting of staff or student sexual misconduct cases. Generic reporting and complaints processes are not able to capture this data and therefore current records and processes serve to erase incidents of misconduct. This contributes to silencing and condoning these forms of violence. We recommend such data is reported and held centrally; it should certainly be held outside of HR departments. Quantitative data should be reported on an annual basis, following a model that ensures the confidentiality of those concerned. Qualitative data can be used to help implement change. Current models of data recording and reporting in the US could be used as the basis to begin to develop processes in the UK.

  1. Address the long-term impact of staff sexual misconduct on those who experience it.

Sexual misconduct from university staff can have a severe and long-lasting impact on students who experience it. It can affect their academic achievement and confidence, whether they feel safe to be on campus, and their mental health. It is also a factor in attrition, as it may lead to non-completion of a degree. Currently in many institutions there is little support for students who have experienced assault, rape, and other forms of violence and sexual misconduct. Instead, they are expected to continue their studies following a disclosure. Universities must commit to supporting students both academically and pastorally through recognising that the long-term impact of sexual violence may impede student progress in both expected and unexpected ways. Institutions must recognise that each allegation of sexual misconduct represents a long term process which can easily take years to resolve. This requires on going support for the student. Such support may include the provision of long-term counselling services that may be external to the institution, access to legal services, providing support for international students whose immigration status is at risk if studies are delayed, support for students whose funding for postgraduate studies may be withdrawn through lack of progress, and providing undergraduate students with extensions for deadlines. Institutions need to be sensitive to the varied costs that delays in completing stud­ies have on students.

  1. Implement comprehensive sector-wide and institution-level cultural change.

Across all of these changes there is a requirement for universities to recognise how their organisational cultures support and condone sexual misconduct, even when there are preventative policies and training in place. Cultures may be established prior to the arrival of staff who abuse their positions of power. These cultures enable such behaviour to occur and continue unchallenged.

To address this problem, comprehensive cultural change is required throughout the higher education sector. This needs to be at a deeper level than simply removing perpetrators of sexual misconduct, implementing policy, and conducting training programmes. It requires senior leadership to drive change, but crucially it requires involvement from all layers of the institution. We recommend that universities invest in understanding their organisational culture in relation to wide-ranging issues of gender and racial equality and responses to sexual violence, gender-based violence and hate crimes. This should include attention to how this culture may differ across departments and faculty. Stakeholders across each university must be involved in developing long-term strategies and action plans for change. A good example of the work being done to promote equality and diversity within higher education through organisational cultural change is the programme Changing University Cultures (

The 1752 Group is working on national guidelines around staff-student misconduct, which will indicate a broad direction for change. We deem it necessary that external and industry sector expertise be used within each institution to make recommendations towards cultivating an ethos where sexual misconduct will be challenged and be unacceptable. This needs to include particular attention to the differences between what policy dictates and how culture operates, as well as how race, class, sexuality, age, ability, mental health and gender identity impact on experiences of sexual misconduct.

Further sector initiatives needed:

Instigate a national conversation on disciplinary procedures for staff members moving between institutions and data sharing across institutions.
At present staff members can opt to ‘leave’ or ‘resign’ during a disciplinary process, without any record of a formal complaint of sexual misconduct. Currently there is little protection for students, staff and institutions against this occurring. These individuals can then seek employment elsewhere, both domestically and internationally. We will be leading on discussions around ways to address the issue of serial perpetrators moving from institution to institution.