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Universities: Sexual Harassment

Question for Department for Education

UIN 4649, tabled on 20 May 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what recent assessment his Department has made of the levels of sexual harassment and assault at universities; and what steps he is taking to tackle that matter.

Answered on

25 May 2021

Any form of harassment, violence or sexual assault is abhorrent and unacceptable anywhere in society, including in our universities which should be safe and inclusive environments. The government urges university leaders to ensure a zero-tolerance approach to all harassment and sexual misconduct and improve the systems for reporting incidents.

Higher education (HE) providers have clear responsibilities, including under the Equality Act 2010, and should have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law, and to investigate and swiftly address reports of sexual misconduct. Any student who feels that their complaint has not been dealt with appropriately or satisfactorily can escalate their complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Students also can and should inform the police if they believe the law has been broken. The government expects providers to support students in making a decision about the way forward, including whether to make a report to the police.

It is important that providers break down barriers to reporting and that students feel safe and able to report incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The government urges HE providers to collect comprehensive accurate data on harassment incidents, and continue to break down barriers to reporting, in spite of the potential for this to lead to initial spikes in reported instances.

The Office for Students (OfS) statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct was published on 19 April 2021 and is a useful tool for providers, who should ensure their policies and processes reflect the expectations set out within the statement. As part of its next steps on harassment and hate crime, the OfS has indicated that it will consider options for connecting the statement of expectations to its conditions of registration.

The government has been working with and through the OfS and Universities UK (UUK) in recent years to improve the way the HE sector tackles sexual harassment and misconduct in HE. The department holds regular meetings with UUK and the OfS specifically on matters of sexual harassment and misconduct in HE, including in relation to progress on the implementation of the recommendations of the UUK 2016 Changing the Culture Framework. This framework was published by the UUK Harassment and Hate Crime Taskforce, which was set up in September 2015 at the government’s request.

Since 2016, a total investment of £4.7 million, match funded by HE providers, has been invested by the OfS and its predecessor, funding 119 safeguarding projects. £2.45 million of this was given to 63 projects specifically focused on tackling sexual and gender-based violence in higher education.

Despite these efforts, evidence (including testimonials on the Everyone’s Invited website) demonstrates that a significant change is still needed. The government is deeply concerned to see the disturbing testimonies which reference experiences within HE settings. The government will continue to work closely with the sector and its regulator, the OfS, to ensure students feel safe within HE providers, and that providers have robust policies and procedures in place to address incidents.

The government remains committed to working with the sector to prevent and tackle sexual harassment and assault.

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