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Creating Robust Safeguarding Policies to Enhance the Student Experience

  • 26 February 2024
  • By Rose Stephenson
  • This blog, by HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy Rose Stephenson, is an adapted version of a speech delivered in January 2024.

Before I worked at HEPI, I worked at the University of Bath, developing organisational policy – so I have a particular interest in how national policy and regulation translates into action, on the ground, in higher education providers.

I’m speaking this morning about developing robust safeguarding policies to enhance the student experience. I’m not quite sure that enhance is the right word here. But the focus is going to be on ensuring, that when students are involved in a difficult safeguarding process, that the experience they receive is professional, timely and compassionate.

I’m going to talk about several different safeguarding policies today. These include Student, Staff and Sexual Misconduct policies, Fitness to Study and Fitness to Practise, Emergency Contact protocols and Student Complaints policies.

Student misconduct sets out how students should and should not behave. This can be quite wide-ranging, from not setting off fire alarms on purpose, to not committing acts of violence. Student conduct rules can also be a bit obscure.  At the University of Bath, for example, there is a rule that students are not allowed into the lake without permission from the Security team.

If we consider student conduct as a factor in safeguarding, we should also consider staff conduct as a factor. Staff-focused policies are often owned by Human Resources, and influencing these to be good, student-focused policies can be quite challenging. Not only should these policies consider student welfare, the case management of these processes should also centre student (and staff) wellbeing – to the same standard as student conduct policies. Ensuring that students have representation in staff processes can be helpful – but again it can be challenging to drive change in this area.

Some institutions have separate sexual misconduct policies, and this is advocated by many colleagues working in sexual misconduct prevention. My standpoint is that if you write your student misconduct policy for sexual misconduct cases, then you will get all your misconduct processes to the highest standard of wellbeing, evidential testing, transparency, and rigour.

Fitness to study is a process that is used to determine if a student is ‘fit’ to continue their studies. This is often used if a student is experiencing severe or critical mental health issues, such as a student suffering from an eating disorder and who is fainting in labs or classes because of their illness. The provider may want to run a Fitness to Study process to determine if this student is fit and safe to continue, or if the best course of action is for that student to take a break and engage with therapeutic support on a full-time basis. If they are fit to study, what additional support can be put in place for this student? Fitness to Study should always be a supportive process, although it is sometimes difficult for students to view the process this way.

Fitness to Practise is a policy that applies to students on courses with linked professional standards. For example, pharmacy, medicine, teaching, social work etc. Both student misconduct and fitness to study processes may feed into a fitness to practise process. For example, a student who was found to have breached the student misconduct policy due to drug use, would likely also face a fitness to practice process, if they were a pharmacy student. Could a student be ‘fit’ to be a pharmacist, if they had an ongoing drug misuse issue?

An emergency contacts policy is the process which determines at what point a university would reach out to a student’s emergency contact if the provider were worried about a student. This is often again in case of severe mental health difficulties. There are real complexities about this issue that need careful consideration and understanding.

Student complaints processes are less closely aligned with student safeguarding. However, it is a process that can be difficult for students, and the principles we will talk about today can and should apply to this process also. There are additional policies, missing students, disengaged students and academic misconduct policies, exam board processes and individual mitigating circumstances policies that these principles could apply to also.

And staff/student relationship policies. If you don’t think staff/student relationships are a safeguarding issue, then I suggest you have a chat with your students.

So, plenty of policies to write or review – how should you go about that?


Your starting point should be compliance. The Office for Students (the OfS – the regulator of higher education in England) is working toward providing some regulation in this area. There was a consultation run in early 2023, as to whether and how the OfS will regulate how universities prevent and respond to harassment and sexual misconduct on campus. We are due the outcome of this consultation ‘in the coming months’. In the meantime, if you are updating your policies, it will be worth looking at the consultation document for a steer. Similarly, the OfS is going to hold a regulatory role in terms of freedom of speech, which will also play into your student and staff conduct policies. The actual details are not yet available, but there is an OfS insight brief, which provides some information. Compliance for safeguarding in higher education is on the way, and you’ll need to consider this carefully….when it arrives.

If you run apprenticeship programmes at your institution, you will also need to comply with the Ofsted framework in terms of safeguarding. It is a very clunky fit, as the Ofsted framework is designed to fit with statutory safeguarding duties for children and vulnerable adults – which apply in schools and colleges and are unlikely to apply to most of your students. I found this to be a harmful process to our overall safeguarding messaging to students. We wanted to give students (on a postgraduate degree apprenticeship, so exclusively 21 years +) clear messaging on where to seek help if they experienced sexual misconduct – by using the university’s report and support tool. Instead, we had to drill them that they would report safeguarding concerns to the designated safeguarding lead, giving mixed and unhelpful messages. Far from ideal.


Much more helpful than the current state of regulation is a lot of the available guidance.

Firstly, from the OIA, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. The OIA has an ombudsman role in higher education. If a student is unhappy with the service they have received at their institution, including during any of these safeguarding processes, they can seek resolution through the OIA. The OIA provides a great deal of helpful guidance through their good practice framework. There is a good practice framework for:

  • Student discipline processes
  • Fitness to practise processes
  • Student complaints processes

Among others. These documents are not regulatory, but I’d advise that you treat them as regulatory a) because they are so sensible and b) because these are the standards that the OIA will be looking for should a student take a complaint to the OIA.       

There are other documents that you may find useful, including:

  • The Pinsent Mason guidance – relevant for student conduct policies, particularly for sexual misconduct cases;
  • The Mental Health Charter – a good guide to underpin work in this area;
  • UUK Change the Culture taskforce report; and
  • Various publications by the 1752 group (relating to staff sexual misconduct).

Good practice

If you are starting policies from scratch, or even reviewing policies, it’s always helpful to see what else is out there. Some of these policies will be available on public-facing webpages (and I would argue they should be). Or speak to colleagues at other institutions to find out what they are doing.

Policy Vs Process

Most of the topics I’ve covered today include organisational policy, ‘rules’ if you like. A policy should include:

  • The purpose of the policy
  • The scope of the policy (who is applies to, and in what circumstances)
  • The details of the policy – such as expected standards of behaviour, or what constitutes a student complaint.

Policies should be relatively short.

A word of caution. Let’s consider this image for a moment.

You can start with a beautiful, simple, one-page policy. You’ll then have to take your policy through a stakeholder consultation process, and lots of stakeholders will have lots of opinions on your policy. I’m not saying your policy will be worse at the end of this process, but it won’t be as neat and tidy and beautiful as it was to begin with.

You will then have in your process:

  • What happens when;
  • Who is responsible for each stage of the process;
  • Who is involved in each stage of the process;
  • What the roles are in each stage: advisors, decision makers, witnesses and so on;
  • Timescales for each stage;
  • Where students can seek representation;
  • Where students can seek wellbeing support;
  • Where students can seek disability support; and
  • Where students can go if they are unhappy with the service they have received. This might be the student complaints process, the OIA, or for freedom of speech issues, the OfS – when the free speech complaints process is live.

This will become your case management process for each case.


We need to have a think about communicating policies.

Institution-wide communication

So you’ve spent three months of your professional life drafting a policy, consulting with stakeholders, complying with regulation and guidance and wadding slowly through the university’s governance process. Your policy and process are approved and published on your webpages. Job done, right? Wrong! You spent three months writing this, you need to tell people about it! For all university policies there should be a comms plan, highlighting to students, and in these cases student-facing staff that a policy has been published. And reminders about where to find all these policies should be regular.

You also need to think about how you communicate these policies. For example, can you translate your student misconduct policy into a one-page code of conduct – outlining what students cannot do, and the sanctions they are likely to face. Are you expecting students to agree to this at the point of registration? If so, how do you ensure that they engage with the code, rather than clicking ‘agree’ like we all do on terms and conditions documents? Are you expecting them to remember the details of this code, given that they’ve read it during the overwhelm of Fresher’s week? Are you expecting that by the time May rolls around, and it’s hot and sunny, students will remember they are not allowed in the lake? Regular communication is needed – and for conduct policies, this is likely to be a regulatory requirement once the OfS regulation is published.

Individual student communication

Aside from conduct and complaints processes, most students won’t need to know about these safeguarding policies in detail unless they are involved in them. However, they then need to know a lot of information about a process that could be very overwhelming. You could be working with an 18-year-old student who only recently left home now going through a process that they are finding very stressful. From my experience, some students feel a huge amount of shame about the process they are going through, particularly conduct and Fitness to Practice processes, or may already be struggling with loneliness, mental health, and isolation, even paranoia, if they are undergoing a Fitness to Study process. Some students won’t have told a single other person that they are going through this process. You will also be working with traumatised victims of rape, sexual assault, and interpersonal violence. So, you need to give clear, supportive information. For each of these processes you may wish to consider:

  • A student guide explaining the process.
  • Template letters for each stage of the process, reiterating where students can seek support, get representation, and access ombudsman services.
  • Process documents for each meeting with students, reminding panels to introduce themselves to students, to check that they’ve accessed wellbeing support, to check if they need any reasonable adjustments, to let them know they can ask for breaks. These documents ensure consistency of approach during meetings. You can also include in these process documents, reminders to check for conflicts of interest and build in checks for unconscious bias when decision making. Remember that these can be stressful processes for the staff involved also – so setting out what is needed will be welcome.
  • Outcome letters. You need letters to explain outcomes, reiterating support and outlining appeals options and next steps. However, you need to be very mindful about the types of information you are sharing via letters. An outcome from a Fitness to Study process, telling a student they have been suspended from university, should not be delivered via the postal system or email. Students should be invited to a meeting to be given these outcomes wherever possible, especially when the outcomes are significant.

If you are overseeing this work, I highly recommend seeking some training on a trauma-informed approach.

Student co-creation

The most important thing I will say today is: work with your students. They will vastly improve your processes and communication. I wrote what I thought were gently worded template letters for a Fitness to Study process, and the students I shared them with were horrified by them. They told me in no uncertain terms that I could not send these letters to students. They had various excellent points, one of which was the use of the word ‘hearing’ to describe a Fitness to Study meeting. It sounded criminal or judicial to the students. It was so obvious when they pointed it out. The students rewrote my letters, and they were much improved. The students I worked with for this were paid, and I would advocate for this approach – this isn’t student representation or volunteering – it is co-creation and it is work.


Finally – monitor your outcomes. Are you finding all drugs misconduct cases in breach of regulation, but not any harassment cases? Is there a reason for this inconsistency?  Is one department approving all student complaints, and one department rejecting them all? Could moderation and sharing of good practice be helpful here? I’d advocate for publishing stats on your outcomes. If you are not comfortable with publishing your statistics, you need to be asking some difficult questions.

Give your students, and the staff involved, a chance to provide feedback. The nature of these processes means that many students may be unhappy with the outcomes. But that doesn’t change to fact that they should have felt supported and clearly communicated with throughout the process.

I will finish with a summary of my approach for developing safeguarding policies and processes:

  • Ensure you are compliant;
  • Use the guidance to guide you;
  • Ask for good practice to be shared – you don’t have to reinvent the wheel;
  • Split your policies and processes;
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate;
  • Co-create with students, always; and
  • Measure your impact and publish your stats.

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