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Notes from the UUK conference on tackling violence against women and harassment

Emily Darian

Emily Darian

Policy Researcher
Universities UK
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​​​With around 160 delegates from 100 universities, the numbers attending UUK's conference on tackling violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting students yesterday sent a clear signal that universities are taking these problems extremely seriously.

The lively discussion both in the room and online was further proof of how strongly everyone involved feels about tackling these problems. It was also great to see speakers and delegates from such a diverse range of organisations coming together, including the NUS, the Union of Jewish Students and Rape Crisis. Bringing together such an array of universities and specialist organisations also highlighted a number of excellent examples of good practice that we hope to draw on in establishing a directory of case studies for the sector.

This conference follows the recent publication of the UUK Taskforce's report, Changing the culture, and updated guidance on how universities can deal with incidents that also constitute criminal behaviour.

The Taskforce was established in autumn 2015 to review the evidence on violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting students and recommend a way forward for universities to respond effectively to such incidents, as well as to work towards preventing this behaviour happening in the first place.

Here's a flavour of just some of the speakers and discussions:

  •  In her remarks at the start of the day, Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, emphasised the need for strong commitment from senior leaders to addressing these issues. Fostering an environment in which students feel supported and safe in coming forward – whether they have been affected by or witnessed unacceptable behaviour – must come from the top.

  • Hareem Ghani, NUS Women's Officer, was one of a great many speakers who highlighted the importance of universities and students' unions working in partnership and using the influential position of student leaders, such as presidents of clubs and societies, to set expectations and encourage students to call out unacceptable behaviour.

  • Nicola Bradfield from the law firm Pinsent Masons spoke about the new sector guidance they have developed for dealing with behaviour which also constitutes a potentially criminal offence, gave a thorough overview of this process and some of the challenges universities might face.

  • Practical workshops covered a wide range of important topics, including the challenges of tackling antisemitism on campus,  how Coventry University has collaborated with its local rape and sexual abuse centre to develop a sexual violence strategy, the University of the West of England's Intervention Initiative, the online reporting tool developed at the University of Manchester, and a demonstration of Epigeum's online course on understanding consent.​

Universities' role in driving change in society

 Violence against women, harassment and hate crime are by no means problems confined to universities: these are problems that exist in wider society. And there was a strong message throughout the conference that as well as addressing these issues on campus, universities must also play a role in educating and changing behaviour in their home towns and cities. Universities are well placed to help drive wider culture change in their local community, using their position as civic leaders and drawing on their own expertise.

Yesterday was just the beginning​

Echoing the words of Professor David Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, who chaired the afternoon session, yesterday's conference and the Taskforce report is just the beginning of this work. Universities across the UK are now on a mission to build on the progress they have already made, to implement the Taskforce's recommendations, and to make sure that every student has the right to a university experience in which sexual violence, harassment and hate crime plays no part.

When delegates return to Woburn House for UUK's next conference on this topic in a year's time, we can look forward to hearing about the further progress universities will have made.

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Graham Towl
Graham Towl says:
21 November 2016 at 22:42

An interesting blog from Universities UK.

Whereas sexual offending and underreporting is a problem in wider society universities are uniquely well placed to make some significant contributions in prevention and improving reporting rates. Sessions on consent and also bystander intervention training are helpful components of institutional policies and practices. Working to make reporting the 'new norm' in the event of sexual offending at universities may well be a key element in contributing to the enactment of concrete signs of cultural change which may then be more likely to become more widespread. Hareem Ghani is right to refer to the pivotal importance of Student Unions and university communities more widely working together on this. Student victim survivors need to feel empowered to make reports to their universities and be made aware of their choices e.g. whether or not to involve local support services such as Sexual Assault Referral Centres and/or the police.

Looking ahead over the next 12 months it will be interesting to see what dedicated resources universities put into this area. One key test for the sector will be around the level of transparency in making the numbers of reports and actions taken publically available information.

Different parts of university communities will have differing levels of reporting. For example, student Nightline services, counselling services and student support services. Such sources (and others) may help inform a fuller understanding of the extent of the problems being addressed, and crucially how to improve support services and aid prevention.

Professor Graham Towl

Durham University