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Higher education after #MeToo: what’s changed in institutional responses to gender-based violence and harassment?

  • 12 June 2023
  • By Anna Bull
  • This HEPI blog was kindly written by Anna Bull, Director of The 1752 Group and lecturer at the University of York.
  • Names of interviewees used in this blog have been changed to protect their identities.

Kelly was an undergraduate student who was groomed and sexually harassed by a lecturer at her university. By the time she reported him, in 2019, the harassment had been ongoing for three years, and she had been hospitalised as a consequence of its deep impacts. She had to take a year out of her degree, but when she returned, she finally told someone at the university what was happening. She was signposted to specialist support during the reporting process. In her own words:

There was a sexual violence officer who met up with me once a week. She was just amazing. She had a real understanding of these kinds of abusive powers and [of] gender-based violence. … Because she was on my side, and because she believed me, and because I was heard – and that’s what it was about: it was about being heard, and when I spoke about it, having everything validated, as in, ‘This isn’t your fault. There’s nothing you could have done. This wasn’t your fault,’ and just being told that over and over again … All members of staff that were involved, as in my tutors, my supervisors, they also understood that this wasn’t my fault. They were able to see it for what it was. Whereas during it, I wasn’t able to see it for what it was.

This kind of specialist support – including the wider understanding from other staff – had not been available for interviewees in my previous study, Silencing Students. It demonstrates some of the positive impacts of changes that have happened some UK higher education institutions since the Changing the Culture report from Universities UK in 2016 and the #MeToo movement in 2017.

Nevertheless, Kelly’s experience was still the exception in my new study of institutional responses to gender-based violence and harassment since 2016. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and supported by my co-researcher Erin Shannon, drew on interviews with two groups:

  • 25 staff in HEIs and students’ unions across three case study institutions who were involved in handling reports/complaints on gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), and;
  • 27 staff and students who disclosed or reported GBVH to their institution between 2016 and 2020.

The study focused specifically on reporting and disciplinary processes. It paid attention to how formal reports are being handled as well as what happened when interviewees disclosed their experiences to someone in their institution but did not formally report. Unlike The 1752 Group’s previous research which has been concerned with staff-student sexual misconduct, this study also included interviewees who disclosed or reported staff-staff and student-student GBVH. As Kelly’s experience demonstrates, the study revealed some evidence of good quality, specialist support being provided to students who were targeted for GBVH (although not all students in this study received such support). For staff reporting parties such support was very noticeably absent.

Despite this evidence of progress, it was clear that the shift to a post-Zellick landscape is proving hugely challenging. The ‘Zellick’ guidelines were lifted in 2016, and HEIs now have an obligation to investigate breaches of their policies that include sexual violence, whether or not reporting parties choose to go to the police. However, there is evidence that not all HEIs have caught up with this change, from both the SUMS Consulting survey and Dr Ana Jordan and colleagues’ report. One account from a student services staff member involved in handling reports of GBVH put it this way:   

In all honesty, I feel in some ways like regulating bodies, since 2016 and overturning Zellick, they’ve lobbed a hand grenade into the sector, and have asked us to deal with that. And there is some guidance out there, some of it is good, but when you get into this work, you realise that it really [only] scratches the surface. When we’ve gone back to various guidance from different bodies to try and find answers to the questions that we’ve got, they’re rarely covered in that guidance.

It was clear from reporting parties’ accounts in this study that overturning Zellick was the right way forward, and higher education institutions do indeed need to be using formal processes to address GBVH. However, this quote reveals a second finding of the study: the lack of detailed guidance for case handling. This means that staff responding to disclosures/reports of GBVH are carrying a high level of risk amidst the post-Zellick changes. It also means that work is being duplicated at different institutions; and as other studies have found, institutional responses to disclosures/reports of GBVH vary greatly across the sector with some institutions fielding whole teams of specialist staff, and others leaving the entire process to non-expert staff doing this on top of multiple other duties.

Consequently, the exhausting and sometimes ineffective nature of reporting processes – which I have documented previously, and which was also very evident in this study – remains a major issue. For example, the most common outcome of a formal report among this sample was responding parties (both staff and students) moving institutions or graduating during an investigation/disciplinary process. This example demonstrates that there is only so much work that can be done at the level of individual institutions, as there are urgent sector-level or structural issues that need to be addressed to ensure that GBVH reports are appropriately handled. Such complex legal and procedural questions require a standardised approach to address issues including:

  • The reporting party being structurally disadvantaged in reporting processes, with fewer rights than responding parties;
  • The variation in reporting parties’ rights according to whether they are staff or students, and whether they are reporting misconduct from staff or students;
  • The reporting process being centred on the responding party, which includes a lack of remedy for reporting parties;
  • Related to the above points, the inappropriateness of the standard grievance/complaints/disciplinary process for tackling sexual harassment;
  • The continued lack of clarity around information-sharing between institutions;
  • The lack of appropriate alternative options to formal disciplinary processes.

The report points towards emerging good practice in some of these areas. It also explores the role of UCU in reporting and disciplinary processes, as well as covering other issues including informal responses to reports; group reports; handling reports confidentially; and balancing data protection with staff and student safety.

The recommendations focus on actions that are needed from sector organisations including the Health and Safety Executive, the Office for the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, UCU, ACAS, the Office for Students, and others. We also support the #ForThe100 campaign to introduce a statutory duty of care for higher education institutions towards their students.

The toll of the current mode of handling reports is described by staff member Charlotte, who reported a more senior colleague for sexual harassment and other abuses of power. She told us:

I don’t think unless you’ve been through it you can really appreciate the huge amount of emotional energy it takes to go through [a reporting process], which is so far beyond what I would have ever predicted. And so far beyond what you would objectively guess just looking at like the process like. I feel like I spent most of 2020 just in bed. Just crying every day in bed. It’s so hard to explain why it is such a massive drain. But it is.

It should not be this hard to report sexual harassment. The good news is, we’ve come a long way since 2016. The bad news is, it’s not nearly far enough.

You can access the full Higher Education after #MeToo report here.

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