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Tackling violence in universities: key learnings from Australia

Kelsey Paske

Kelsey Paske

Athena SWAN Advisor
Equality Challenge Unit

​Equality, diversity, justice and service are values ingrained within the mission statements of many UK universities. But there's a need to address the experience of students, their parents and alumni when considering these values in relation to practice on the ground.

University of New South Wales (UNSW) Australia recently published On Safe Ground – a good practice guide for Australian universities. Informed by the Australian national prevalence survey and international research, the guide provides important learnings for UK universities to prevent reinventing the wheel, and to help fast-track cultural change.

On Safe Ground (OSG) highlights that while issues of violence are not unique to universities, universities are in a unique position to embed cultural and behavioural change.  In fact, universities have been recognised as a key site for the primary prevention of violence.

OSG encourages universities to move beyond 'zero tolerance policies' and 'safer community units', particula​rly as institutional practice or response may be the origin of a student's concern and therefore unlikely to attract student confidence. Instead, cultural and behavioural change strategies can be achieved through prevention initiatives.

There are three tiers to violence prevention: tertiary, secondary and primary – this includes supporting survivors and holding perpetrators to account, changing the trajectory for individuals at increased risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence, and embedding whole-of-population initiatives that address the underlying drivers of violence. To be successful, strategies must be embedded into university operational frameworks, properly resourced and socially and culturally relevant.

There is no 'one size fits all approach' to preventing violence – it is critical for universities to highlight key issues for their institution and opportunities to develop targeted responses. This current state analysis was adopted by UNSW to provide an in-depth study of issues confronting an individual university. The Universities UK directory of case studies provides helpful examples of various institutional approaches in the UK. Furthermore, universities can and should consult with their academic and research staff with expertise across violence, criminal justice, survivor support, gender and equality to inform their strategy and approach to prevention.

OSG provides examples of policies, victim support and disciplinary procedures that have been tested in universities around the world. These examples highlight initiatives that prioritise victims, provide fair treatment to the accused and clearly define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

To overcome devastating reports from survivors about their experiences of reporting violence, some universities have adopted approaches which prioritise the needs and decisions of those who have been assaulted. For such approaches, it is crucial to understand the broader social barriers to reporting violence: fear of not being believed, being blamed or labelled, further victimised or re-traumatised; and any local barriers, such as not knowing where to report and access support.

The challenge remains finding the balance between providing victims with appropriate support and according fair treatment to the accused. OSG provides three operational considerations for UK universities when developing a disciplinary framework:

1)    Facilitating student choice of the disciplinary process

2)    Ensuring fair treatment for victims, alleged perpetrators and witnesses/bystanders

3)    Clarifying the relationship between the university's complaints process and criminal justice system

Discussing violence is uncomfortable, and considering how to address this within large institutions is overwhelming – but this discomfort must be overcome if universities are to ensure safe, inclusive and welcoming environments for students and staff.  This work requires strong and sustained leadership and engagement to have a meaningful impact. The complexity of this issue also requires intelligent collaboration across borders: OSG is just one of many helpful resources that UK universities can use in their work to 'Change the Culture'.

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