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What can universities do to tackle sexual misconduct?

Unfortunately, sexual misconduct is a society-wide problem, and universities cannot always stop sexual misconduct from happening. However, there are tangible steps they can take to tackle sexual misconduct and ensure survivors have access to adequate reporting and support systems. 

On this page you will find:

Specific examples of where and how you think your university could change can be useful in creating a strong case for change at your university – the points below can support you in this. Learn more about campaigning to make change.

What can my university do?

Organisations like Universities UK (UUK), The Office for Students (OfS) (the regulatory body for universities in England) and the NUS have produced guidance to support universities to tackle sexual misconduct.

The key recommendations from all these sources are achievable, tangible steps for universities to make in tackling sexual misconduct and meeting established sector standards.

UUK’s Changing the Culture report (2016) provides a 5 pillar strategic framework, 4 of which are relevant here, for tackling sexual misconduct at university, which can be broken down into realistic steps any institution can take. UUK is the collective voice of 140 universities in the UK. 

  1. Senior leadership need to take a key role in tackling sexual misconduct
  2. Universities must take an institution-wide approach to tackling sexual misconduct
  3. Effective prevention strategies
  4. Effective response strategies

Senior leadership role

UUK emphasise that all university leaders should make tackling sexual misconduct a priority, and ensure they dedicate suitable resources to tackling it.

AVA’s 2021 Vice-Chancellor’s Toolkit, a peer-peer resource informed by and for Vice-Chancellor’s, further emphasises the key role of senior leadership in this agenda in terms of clear communication, personal commitment and actively leading the necessary change.

A whole-institution approach

UUK explains that tackling sexual misconduct requires whole institution engagement, from senior leadership, staff, governance, and the students. This is essential for an agreed university-wide strategic response to sexual misconduct.

In their sector guidelines, the OfS highlight that universities should regularly assess their impact and approach to tackling sexual misconduct, and the governing body of institutions should be involved and aware of any progress, and their duty under the Public Sector Equality duty.

The University of Warwick and University College London have published annual reports showing their progress in tackling sexual misconduct.

The OfS emphasise that students should be involved in a safe and meaningful way in the development, implementation and evaluation of systems, policies and processes for tackling sexual misconduct. 

Prevention strategies

Prevention strategies refer to the actions universities take to prevent sexual misconduct. The following come from UUK (2016).

Universities should provide relevant training on sexual misconduct to staff and students. This should be embedded into processes at institutions (such as during inductions). This could be on important topics like consent and bystander intervention, for example, and provided on an ongoing basis.

The code of conduct/behavioural expectations between students and the university should be made clear and easily accessible.

See Loughborough University’s sanctions guidance  for an example of behavioural expectations and disciplinary sanctions at university. Note that these will vary across institutions.

It should be clearly communicated that the university is committed to student safety and wellbeing.

The university’s policies, processes and disciplinary sanctions for sexual misconduct should be made clearly accessible.

Response strategies

Response strategies refer to the actions universities take to respond to sexual misconduct. The following are from UUK (2016).

Universities should have a clear and accessible disclosure and reporting system. It should be clearly communicated to students which members of staff they can disclose incidents to, and where they can go to formally report incidents to the university. Students should have access to the information explaining the processes used in these circumstances, as well as investigation processes.

It should be clearly communicated to students which members of appropriately trained (e.g. trained in managing and responding to disclosures) staff they can go to disclose an incident.

Students should be able to access support regardless of whether they have made a formal report.

Universities should build partnerships with specialist services e.g. the local Rape Crisis, to ensure that there a consistent referral pathways for students to access support that meets their needs as a survivor of violence and abuse. 

In their sector guidelines, the OfS highlight that where an investigation is taking place into an allegation of sexual misconduct, both parties should receive support, communications should be timely and clear, and both parties should be provided with the investigation outcome. Learn more about investigations.

AVA’s Impact Matrix Tool helps universities measure and assess their progress toward tackling sexual misconduct, helping them meet the OfS statement of expectations. 

UUK (2017) provide case studies from universities focusing on each of the above points, these are useful examples of how making these tangible works changes to tackle sexual misconduct. 

What can I do to help?

Be aware. Understanding what sexual misconduct is, what it looks like, and how it affects people is a good place to start. Receiving training around sexual misconduct is also valuable – this could be bystander intervention training, for example. 
Asking and responding. Once you are aware of what sexual misconduct is, knowing how to enquire about violence and abuse and how to respond is an important step in ensuring survivors get the support they need.  Learn more.
Campaign. Campaigning can be a sustainable and long-term method of influencing and creating change.