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Addressing staff sexual misconduct in higher education

  • 30 April 2019
  • By Dr Anna Bull
Dr Anna Bull

A guest blog kindly contributed by Dr Anna Bull, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth and a founding member of The 1752 Group, a UK-based research and lobby organisation working to end staff-to-student sexual misconduct in higher education.

The #MeToo movement has led students who experience sexual harassment at university to call for better responses from their institutions. Students are demanding a shift in the ways in which their institutions tackle reports of sexual violence and harassment, including more proactive responses, greater accountability, and transparency in the actions that are being taken. This has been proven to be a particularly difficult issue in cases of sexual misconduct (whether harassment, violence, or grooming) carried out by higher education staff towards students. Lobby and research organisation The 1752 Group was established in 2016 in response to the lack of expertise that we found among higher education (HE) institutions (both within and outside the UK) in addressing this issue.

Currently, there are great risks to students and staff who attempt to report staff sexual misconduct to their institution. Those who do report can end up enduring months or even years of complaints processes while battling retaliation from the staff member against whom they have made a complaint. Making a report can also put the student’s career, networks, and personal safety in jeopardy. For these reasons, the majority of students experiencing sexual misconduct from staff do not report it to their institution. For those who do report it, the poor process often exacerbates the trauma of the original event.

Yet sexual misconduct by staff members appears to be relatively common. One major US study of 150,000 students found that 9% of all respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment from a member of faculty, a figure which rose to 22% among female graduate students. In the UK, there are no studies of the prevalence of this issue. However, a survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) and The 1752 Group found that of the 1839 students who responded, 41% had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from university staff. The problem is not limited to students; staff members may abuse their positions to harass other members of staff.

In recognition of the need for the higher education sector to tackle this issue, Universities UK has convened an advisory group on staff sexual misconduct, of which The 1752 Group is a member. It is due to produce guidelines this autumn, but there are a variety of actions that institutions can already be taking to address this issue.

First, there currently exists a lack of clarity around professional boundaries between staff and students. This can enable boundary-blurring or grooming behaviours by staff towards students. Many US universities are recognising this issue by prohibiting sexual and romantic relationships between faculty and students, particularly for undergraduates. Indeed, The 1752 Group’s research carried out with the NUS found that 80% of the respondents to our survey were uncomfortable with HE staff having sexual or romantic relationships with students. In order to address this issue, several HE institutions in the UK have recently or are currently revising their staff-student relationship policies to either prohibit or require reporting of such relationships. This step is helpful in clarifying to both students and staff what behaviours are appropriate between staff and students, especially on social media where blurred boundaries can easily be exploited.

Secondly, institutions should make sure their internal complaints processes in this area are fit for purpose. One of the main ways in which institutions are often unprepared to deal with complaints in this area is due to the lack of joined-up processes between student services and HR. A first step is therefore to review and clarify processes for dealing with non-academic student complaints about members of staff, and ensuring students have adequate support throughout this process, especially when dealing with HR who may not be used to student-facing roles.

Thirdly, it is crucial to recognise that staff sexual misconduct is a safeguarding issue. Research from the US as well as the UK shows that many staff members who carry out sexual misconduct towards students are serial perpetrators. Therefore responses to disclosures or reports, rather than confining it to the individual complaints process between one student and one staff member, should always work on the assumption that such reports may point towards a wider safeguarding issue. This may include taking proactive steps to contact further complainants and/or working with the institution’s safeguarding lead to ensure that they are meeting their statutory responsibilities towards adults at risk.

Finally, institutions must recognise that cases do not end after disciplinary action has been taken. Our research shows that most staff members do not lose their jobs after complaints of sexual misconduct. This finding highlights the difficulties for students and early career researchers who remain in their institution after making a complaint. They should be offered academic support, independent specialist counselling, extensions for academic deadlines, fees refunds, and a risk assessment relating to retaliation from the perpetrator. In addition, there is some evidence that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are being used to keep this issue quiet, and we would call on institutions to follow the lead of UCL who have pledged not to use NDAs in cases of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying.

Sexual misconduct perpetrated by academic staff affects other staff as well as students, whether as bystanders, victims, supporters, managers, or colleagues. Regardless of the perceived seriousness of the misconduct, the abuse of a position of trust can have severe and ongoing effects for students, including attrition, changing career, loss of confidence, inability to access teaching, as well as severe health, financial and emotional impacts. All of these impacts can lead to those who experience sexual misconduct being unable to stay in their institution or progress into their profession. Staff sexual misconduct is a reputational, financial, and moral issue for higher education institutions. Good practice is finally beginning to be formulated and shared, and this is not a minute too soon for those who have lost years of their lives and careers due to abuses of power by higher education staff.

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