New guidance seeks to tackle sexual misconduct at universities

A report sets out a number of recommendations aiming to protect students from harassment and harm.

New guidance published to help universities across the UK better tackle sexual misconduct by staff iStock

Universities must give more help to students to report sexual misconduct by staff, according to a new report.

A number of recommendations have been set out by Universities UK (UUK) aiming to protect students from harassment and harm, whilst also treating staff and students fairly.

It was written with input from the National Union of Students (NUS), survivor groups including Rape Crisis and the 1752 Group, staff unions, professional bodies and academic experts.

Amongst the measures outlined, UUK indicates that institutions should create an “inclusive and positive culture”, supported by clear policies, practices and data, to tackle staff to student sexual misconduct. 

The report recommends that close personal relationships should be strongly discouraged between staff and students.

And it notes that where relationships do happen, the staff member should declare this and be removed from all responsibilities which could mean a conflict of interest.

It recommends banning the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), or confidentiality clauses, in settlement agreements in sexual misconduct and harassment cases.

People should be encouraged to report concerns, the report indicates, with better support and protection for those who speak out, including for those who prefer to do so anonymously.

The report further recommends that institutions collect and keep records on reports of staff-to-student sexual misconduct to help the sector see and understand the problem.

And it outlines a need to establish “joined-up thinking” across human resources and student services and to ensure that staff and student policies and practices work together.

The guidance was developed by an advisory group chaired by professor Cara Aitchison, vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University.

“Universities are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all students and staff – we have both an ethical and legal duty of care,” said professor Aitchison.

“While the overwhelming majority of students enjoy a positive and safe experience on campus, sadly harassment and violence does still occur.

“Both as a sector, and as independent institutions, we must address this by changing the culture that enables sexual misconduct to take place. 

“It is critical that students who experience or witness sexual misconduct feel confident and supported to speak out and we know this can be particularly difficult where a complaint involves a staff member.

“We must ensure every campus has a culture of trust and a sense of belonging where students feel listened to and trust the university will act appropriately.”  

The UK’s minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan, gave her backing to the guidance.

“Universities have a profound responsibility to protect students from sexual misconduct, especially when perpetrated by those in positions of power such as a member of staff, so I welcome this timely guidance,” she said. 

“It is right to call on universities not to use Non-Disclosure Agreements to silence victims of sexual harassment, and I am deeply proud that over 30 universities have already signed up to a pledge I launched last month committing to end this immoral practice”.  

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, VP higher education at the National Union of Students, explained the abuses of power that must be tackle.  

They said: “Every student should feel safe and secure throughout their time at university, and be able to look to the institution and its staff for support if they experience sexual violence on campus.

“That is why any abuse perpetrated by staff is particularly shocking. It destroys trust and is an issue our own research has shown was historically overlooked within higher education, focusing instead on misconduct between students. 

“There are clear power imbalances in relationships between staff and students, and abuses of this power must be tackled with a whole-university approach.

“We were pleased to support the development of this guidance, and to help create the right culture and conditions for students to feel protected and able to speak out if they experience or witness sexual misconduct, regardless of who is behind that misconduct.”