Universities should be more transparent in dealing with harassment, says new guidance

Over half of students said they wouldn’t trust their uni to handle a sexual harassment claim appropriately

Universities should be more transparent in their response to harassment complaints so victims have a clearer sense of the outcomes of their complaint, says new guidance. 

Two guides have been produced by Universities UK, in collaboration with Coventry University. They provide practical guidance for how institutions should approach decisions on whether to share or not share personal data in relation to harassment cases, particularly information relating to outcomes and sanctions for the perpetrators.

Last year, a student survey found that over half of students said they wouldn’t trust their institution to handle a sexual harassment claim appropriately.

The new guidance makes reference to a 2019 Equality and Human Rights Commission report, finding that not sharing outcomes of harassment complaints had a detrimental impact on students’ mental health, increased the likelihood of disengagement from student and working life (such as students dropping out as a result of distress and safety concerns) and contributed to a lack of confidence that universities were taking appropriate action to tackle incidents and prevent future harassment.

One of the aims is to improve underreporting of harassment incidents, by increasing transparency in how they are handled and responded to. To be effective in encouraging reporting parties to come forward, it argues the outcome to a complaint should be as transparent as possible.

Specifically, it suggests victims of harassment may feel more able to come forward if they are aware that other complaints have already been made against a particular individual. In this circumstance, the guidance suggests it may be possible to share some information about the existence of other complaints to victims.

Professor David Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of the stakeholder group supporting the work, said: “We must send an unwavering message to students and staff that any form of harassment will not be tolerated”, but also added: “Some current practice undermines confidence in that commitment.”

He said: “It takes great courage for an individual to report an incident of harassment and receiving information on the decision made by the university can help deliver effective redress, remedy the harm caused and increase the student’s feeling of safety at the university.”

The guidance stresses the importance of sharing information, for reasons including the mental health and wellbeing of harassment victims, and emphasises that data protection “shouldn’t be a barrier” to dealing with complaints effectively.

“Universities must consider the potential benefits of the sharing from both the perspective of the reporting party and the responding party, which will then need to be balanced against the potential impact of the sharing”, it says.

Our Streets Now is an organisation campaigning to end public sexual harassment, and in 2021 it launched a campaign to combat harassment in higher education institutions. In a 2021 student survey they found that 84 per cent of students stated that they do not feel comfortable reporting public sexual harassment to their Higher Education Institution, and 52 cent wouldn’t trust their institution to handle a sexual harassment claim appropriately.

The Tab spoke to Ammaarah Faisal and Ellen Bell-Davies from the Our Streets Now’s Higher Education campaign to get their reaction to the new guidance. They said: “Whilst we welcome this call for greater transparency for both those who have experienced harassment and to be able to assess institutions’ responses, we also stress the need to improve reporting and support processes to ensure that they fully address the needs of all students from different communities.

“We believe that to enable students to truly feel safe during their time in HE, initiatives to tackle harassment must not focus on reporting, rather they must concentrate on prevention through education and awareness.”

The guidance produced by Universities UK contains specific recommendations for universities, including updating their public policies and avoiding blanket refusals to share information on outcomes and instead operate on a case by case basis. It also contains practical tools and templates for dealing with harassment complaints.

Featured image before edits via Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

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