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Universities: Sexual Harassment

Question for Department for Education

UIN 43516, tabled on 6 September 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps his Department is taking to tackle sexual harassment in universities.

Answered on

14 September 2021

Any form of harassment, violence or sexual assault is abhorrent and unacceptable anywhere in society, including in our universities. Sexual harassment is in no way tolerable on our campuses and online environments. The government urges university leaders to ensure a zero-tolerance approach to all harassment and sexual misconduct and to ensure they have robust systems in place for reporting incidents where they do occur.

The Office for Students (OfS) statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct was published on 19 April and is a useful tool for providers. As part of its next steps on harassment and hate crime, the OfS will now be considering options for connecting the statement of expectations to its conditions of registration. The OfS wrote to providers on 10 June, asking them to review and update their systems, policies and procedures in line with the statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct by the beginning of the next academic year. I have made it clear that government sees the OfS statement as the minimum that providers should be doing to keep students safe from sexual harassment and misconduct, and to handle reported incidents appropriately when they do occur.

I also wrote to the sector on 2 July reasserting the government’s firm expectations for providers in this space. This includes giving urgent consideration to the OfS request to update their systems. I detailed the way in which the government will legislatively tackle the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in relation to workers and employers. I also outlined that I have asked officials to explore options for going further in this area in higher education (HE). The use of NDAs in relation to sexual violence, harassment and misconduct is wholly inappropriate.

I am extremely concerned that many of the deeply disturbing testimonies that continue to be posted on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website reference experiences within HE settings. I met with the founder of Everyone’s Invited in June, to discuss tackling sexual harassment in HE. I also met with Universities UK (UUK) to discuss this issue, including their existing guidance for providers in this area. I understand they are preparing guidance on staff to student sexual misconduct, which will be published soon.

I know that sexual harassment and misconduct is an area that for several years HE providers, the OfS, the government and sector bodies have been working together on. In 2015, UUK set up a taskforce on harassment at the request of the government. 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 HE. In my recent letter to the sector, I highlighted that it may also be timely to revisit the resources produced by these OfS-funded projects relating to this area, available via the following link:

In addition to preventative policies and procedures, we expect providers to ensure that students continue to have access to support services, and complaints processes, during the COVID-19 outbreak, to ensure they are able to report any issues. I will continue to work across government to ensure that sexual harassment is stamped out of our world leading HE sector.