Raised expectations? – challenges for HE in preventing and responding to harassment and sexual misconduct

05 May 2021      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer

HE providers in England need to urgently benchmark their systems and procedures for preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct before the next academic year to meet a new Statement of Expectations now published by the Office for Students, writes Diane Gilhooley, Global Head of Employment, Labour, Pensions and Education, Eversheds Sutherland LLP

The scale of harassment and sexual misconduct – and the adequacy of action to prevent and respond to it – is a long standing challenge for HE. The OfS Statement of Expectations, coincides with renewed scrutiny of the education sector’s record in this area through the Everyone’s Invited campaign, which, like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter and the collective anger after the death of Sarah Everard, shows the power of a growing “speak up” culture.  These movements are a new and effective form of whistleblowing, which doesn’t rely on formal processes, where the case for change is made by the cumulative weight of shared experiences of mistreatment and the call for lasting change is made through a strong collective voice. Institutions are increasingly being held to account by their communities as well as by their regulator.

The Statement covers harassment relating to all protected characteristics, sexual misconduct and violence, including criminal offences, hate speech and domestic abuse. Although the Statement of Expectations focuses on the interests of students, the OfS also anticipates that providers will apply a similar approach to protecting staff and visitors. Harassment and sexual misconduct by staff against students is a key area addressed by the Statement, and HR teams will have a vital role to play in meeting the expectations – by supporting changes in culture and behaviour; training staff to respond to reports and complaints and to carry out effective and transparent investigations and hearings; and ensuring that staff and student complaints and disciplinary policies work together effectively in practice.

At present, the OfS has not linked the Statement of Expectations to specific registration conditions and is clear that the statement “sets out expectations, not regulatory requirements”.  However, while there is nothing particularly radical or novel in OfS’ expectations, Governing bodies and senior leaders (including HR) should not be complacent as to the scale of the task ahead of them.  What will undoubtedly be needed in practice is an innovative and progressive “grasping” (to adopt OfS’s terminology) of this key institutional agenda, once and for all, and the unequivocal commitment of sufficient institutional time, resources and energy to ensure that preventative strategies and incident responses are timely and effective.

There is no doubt that harassment and sexual misconduct remain fundamental challenges for the sector. But the key message for providers to take is that, with commitment, effort and determination, a sense of urgency, providers can meet these challenges head on to seek to ensure that the safety of students, staff and visitors is protected and that the learning and working experiences of students and staff are the positive ones they deserve to be.

The implications of the OfS Statement of Expectations and the key changes HEIs should be considering is one of the topics we will be covering in our session “EDI issues in HE: a fresh focus and new challenges” at the Conference. We’d be delighted to see you there as we discuss this important area for the sector. We also want your views on how your institutions measures up against the Statement and have a short survey on our stand which we will use to generate a follow-up report so please do visit us and have your say.

Diane Gilhooley, Global Head of Employment, Labour, Pensions and Education, Eversheds Sutherland LLP

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