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A step-change in tackling sexual violence

17 October 2017
Owen Adams

Owen Adams

Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience)
Durham University

​The Universities UK guidelines on tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students, which were published last year, have served as a catalyst for universities to think carefully about how they can make their institutions safer places to live, work and study.

There has since been a huge step-change across the higher education landscape with universities taking responsibility for implementing a culture change. The follow-up case studies, published by Universities UK, evidence the innovative practices that have started to become embedded across the sector. Examples include the improvement of incident reporting practices and training for staff and students.

Of course, this new sector guidance was a big departure from the practices over the previous 20 years which had followed guidance from the 1994 Zellick report whereby incidents of sexual violence were handled as police matters only.  SOAS should be commended for being the first university to challenge the Zellick principles; this was a significant moment because universities had long been fearful of thinking beyond the criminal issue. When SOAS spoke at the first UUK conference on tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime, there was a great deal of scepticism about a new approach. However, there is now a recognition that universities have a duty to ensure that any students who are survivors receive support and are empowered to make their own choices about their recovery.

Here at Durham, we have had an early focus on sexual violence and misconduct, and we were one of the first universities to:

  • set up a Sexual Violence Task Force – which has now become our multi-agency Sexual Violence and Misconduct Operations Group, with representation from the Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre (RSACC) and Durham Students' Union;
  • recruit a full-time, dedicated Student Support and Training Officer (Sexual Violence and Misconduct);
  • implement a bespoke policy and procedure and a comprehensive training programme for students and staff; and
  • put in place the online courses, Consent Matters:  Boundaries, Respect and Positive Intervention for students and Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence for staff.

We have consulted widely and worked closely with our students and staff on all aspects of our approach to tackling sexual violence and misconduct. It was important that students were represented on the Task Force and members of the Students' Union are also members of our operations group. Students and staff have been consulted widely and provided valuable input into the policy and procedure.  

Students joining Durham in October were the first cohort to be able to take part in consent training and learn how to become an active bystander – to recognise difficult situations and possible ways of stepping in if others need help - from the start of their time with us. They are also benefitting from the fact that many student leaders and members of staff have also been trained in responding to disclosures and supporting survivors. We have also trained key members of staff in investigating allegations of sexual violence and misconduct under our new policy.​

This is a positive step forward for us, but we recognise that this is just the beginning of an important programme of change. We are always looking to see what we can learn from colleagues in the sector.  The Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Team at Keele is an excellent example of best practice. Keele University has a team of accredited Sexual Violence Liaison Officers (SVLOs) based across various departments and this seems to be a very effective model. Another notable innovation is the online reporting tool created by the University of Manchester which provides a unique mechanism for students to report anonymously. 

Colleagues will be conscious that as a result of the heightened awareness in this area, reporting levels are likely to increase. Although this may be perceived as being alarming, we need to be encouraged that this is a result of students and staff feeling more comfortable about coming forward and should be considered a measure of success in removing barriers to disclosure in your institution.

We look forward to building on the initial phase of our work, to continue to work with external partners and to learn from colleagues at other universities, so that together we can eliminate sexual violence from our universities.

Find out more about the Durham University Sexual Violence & Misconduct Operations Group on our website.​

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