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WEEKEND READING – From Compliance to Culture: Safeguarding in Higher Education

  • 6 April 2024
  • By Chris East
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Chris East (LinkedIn), co-founder of Cornerstone Safeguarding Consultancy. Chris has over 15 years of experience in safeguarding and pastoral support.

After reading Rose Stephenson’s brilliant blog post titled Creating Robust Safeguarding Policies to Enhance the Student Experience, I was encouraged to contribute my perspective on a related aspect of safeguarding within higher education. 

Compliance with laws and policies is important. We have rules and procedures in place to protect students from harm, abuse, and discrimination. 

But simply having rules isn’t enough! 

For policies and procedures to effectively function, it is essential that everyone comprehends their necessity, effectiveness, and the benefits they can yield. However, for safeguarding to genuinely make a positive impact within any organisation, it must be woven into the very fabric of its culture.

It is about creating a culture where everyone feels safe and supported. From leadership to students to staff, we need everyone associated with our institutions to understand and believe in its importance. As we are poised to receive the outcomes from the OfS consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct, I believe it is vitally important that the topic of safeguarding is addressed.

But what is Safeguarding?

In Higher Education, our focus on ‘The Big Three’ —Suicide Prevention, Sexual Misconduct, and Prevent—doesn’t fully address the broader spectrum of safeguarding. The Care Act defines adult safeguarding as ensuring adults live free from abuse and neglect, which isn’t entirely covered by these three areas. Additionally, universities must address the needs of individuals under 18 as per definitions of safeguarding as outlined within Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children.

So how do we go from just ‘mere compliance to an effective culture’?

Think of safeguarding like the centre of a stick of rock. It runs through everything we do. It’s about knowing what our university stands for and what each person’s responsibilities are. Safeguarding needs to be embedded into everything we do, so it becomes part of our everyday conversations.

We have legal and moral obligations to adhere to. That means having designated people who are trained to handle safeguarding issues and making sure all staff, students and visitors know who they are and how to recognise signs of trouble and what to do about it.

How can we encourage staff and students to disclose their concerns?

We need to promote a culture where everyone feels empowered to speak up confidently and comfortably. This involves developing regular effective training and awareness programs for everyone on our campuses or using our services, educating them on how to respond and who to approach if they suspect harm. Embracing this approach is crucial for fostering safe, supportive, and empathetic communities.

Clear and consistent communication is essential for everyone associated with our institution regarding Safeguarding. Maximum awareness of our values, security measures, and processes acts as a deterrent for harmful behaviours. In a recent blog titled “Observations from 15 Years in Safeguarding,” I detailed specific approaches to raising awareness of safeguarding essentials (IHE).

Surely not at our University?!!

Our universities are diverse places, but unfortunately, regardless of how robust our support services are, students can still face harassment, discrimination, and violence based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or disability. Too often, these incidents go unreported, leaving students feeling vulnerable and alone.

Statistics from a recent OfS article on ‘Prevent and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct.’

  • Students are more likely to have experienced sexual assault than any other group (Office for National Statistics 2021). 
  • Nearly one in three black and Asian students have experienced racial harassment on campus (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2019).
  • Only one in three students who had experienced racial harassment during the 2018-19 academic year reported it to their university (Equality and Human Rights Commission 2019).
  • In the past two years there has been a 22 per cent increase of antisemitic incidents reported on campus (Community Security Trust, 2023).
  • In a 2018 survey, seven per cent of trans students reported being physically attacked by another student or a member of university staff in the last year. (Stonewall and YouGov 2018).
  • In 2018, one in three Muslim students experienced some form of crime or abuse at their place of study because of their beliefs (National Union of Students 2018).

How can we remove the obstacles preventing our students from disclosing their concerns?

Student voices play a pivotal role in higher education safeguarding, offering invaluable perspectives and insights into campus life. As primary stakeholders, students provide critical feedback on safeguarding measures and support services, helping universities understand their diverse needs and concerns. 

By actively engaging with student voices, universities can identify gaps in protocols and implement targeted interventions to address emerging challenges. 

Moreover, empowering students in safeguarding decision-making fosters a sense of ownership and accountability, promoting inclusive, supportive, and safer environments for all.

Student Representation

Engage student representatives in safeguarding policy committees and feedback sessions. Ensure transparent communication with students through ‘You said, we did’ updates.

Anonymous Reporting Systems

Implement anonymous reporting mechanisms to encourage staff and students to report concerns without fear of retaliation, fostering a safe environment for open dialogue.

Student-Led Awareness Campaigns

Empower student groups to spearhead awareness campaigns on safeguarding issues. Their initiatives resonate better with peers, fostering a culture of openness and accountability. However, make sure to review the content to ensure sensitivity and appropriateness.

Diverse Representation in Support Services

Ensure that support services reflect the diversity of the student body by providing multilingual support and fostering cultural competency among staff members. This inclusivity encourages students to seek assistance comfortably when needed regardless of cultural differences.

By incorporating effective communication and input from all staff and students, universities can create a safer and more inclusive environment for all members of the community. 

Safeguarding isn’t just a tick-box exercise; it’s a commitment to each other. Allowing Safeguarding to play a more prominent role in what your institution stands for is more opportunity than risk.

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