Tackle sexual harassment on campus

Generation Z is starting university – but is higher education ready?

At the University of Salford, we’ve sought to respond to this agenda through the launch of ProtectED – a national university membership and accreditation scheme for student safety, security and wellbeing. The ProtectED code of practicecontains measures on university security; mental health and wellbeing; international student safety; the student night out; and harassment and sexual assault, all of which embed the taskforce recommendations. Member universities must implement all these measures to achieve accreditation, which is verified by trained assessors.

To develop the code, the Salford team of academics reviewed current best practice and university initiatives, surveyed 870 university students, and held discussion groups with students’ union sabbatical officers, police higher education liaison officers, and university security managers.

The student survey yielded the alarming findings that 90% of sexual assault victims hadn’t informed the police and 86% chose not to tell their university. Several responses echoed one individual’s sentiments: “[The assault] didn’t seem severe enough”. Others hinted at a culture of acceptance [pdf] around the issue: “I am referring to drunk individuals within nightclubs and it happens often but is not very serious.” Universities such as Worcester, Kent and Canterbury Christ Church have responded by developing bystander trainingwhich will help students recognise sexual harassment and abuse, understand that it is unacceptable, and give them the skills and confidence to respond appropriately. Sharing their work will enable other universities to replicate their good work.

The ProtectED survey also accentuated the importance of offering peer support – another accreditation requirement – as all students who experienced a sexual assault confided in their friends over the police, university and their families. Liverpool John Moores University will train student safeguarding champions to encourage reporting and provide approachable access to support and advice.

One survey respondent who did speak to their university explains: “No follow up made. Security laughed when I reported the assault.” This is why ProtectED requires universities to have a written policy on student harassment and sexual assault, covering staff and student perpetrators. Having a formal approach to promoting zero-tolerance, staff training, and reporting and recording methods will help ensure a more effective and uniform response. For example, Middlesex University, is creating a toolkit with students to ensure staff are absolutely clear on their role in supporting students and preventing abuse.

In ProtectED focus group sessions, university security managers rated sexual assault and harassment as having the greatest impact on universities, and provided anecdotal accounts of universities not recording incidents to minimise reputational damage

One security manager observed of their university: “If the university publicly acknowledged the problem, then – unless every university does it – it makes it look like there’s a specific issue with [x university] and their sexual harassment problem. And I think they think it will impact on prospective students. I don’t think it does. I personally think that I’d rather the university … put their hands up and be like, ‘This is an issue. We’re tackling it’.”

Data collection is vital to understanding the problem. Achieving ProtectED accreditation also means collecting and sharing student harassment and sexual assault data with ProtectED. This is anonymised, aggregated and used to inform research to benefit member institutions. To enable data collection and support students, universities need to provide accessible, user-friendly reporting methods. The University of Loughborough and the University of Cambridge will create anonymous online reporting systems to minimise discomfort for victims.

Meanwhile the University of Portsmouth is also using funds from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for a range of training and awareness-raising initiatives, they will crucially focus on staff-to-student sexual harassment. Dr Anna Bull will lead in this area, drawing on her work with the 1752 Group.

The government funded-pilots are a good start in getting to grips with student harassment and sexual assault, but attitudes and responses still vary widely across the sector — an unsettling prospect for students and their families. If universities are to respond effectively, they must collaborate to share their experiences, expertise and resources. ProtectED provides a forum for them to do so.