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Sexual violence, harassment and ‘lad culture’ on campus – how universities are tackling the issue

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK
Playing pool in a bar
There has been much discussion recently about sexual violence, harassment and ‘lad culture’ on university campuses. These are serious matters where a zero tolerance approach is required: sexual violence, harassment and ‘lad cultures’ have no place on a university campus, nor anywhere else.

Much of the debate has centred around whether universities have appropriate policies in place to deal with such matters and whether students in need of help are getting proper support and guidance.

Universities UK – in discussion with university experts in the field, student organisations and the government department (BIS) – is currently undertaking work to see whether there is more we can do to support universities in this area and share best practice.

It is worth stressing that this is not an issue confined to university campuses. Many other sectors and walks of life – schools, colleges, workplaces, sports organisations, for example – are dealing with the same challenges. This is a problem to be confronted and addressed across all of society.

Although not a new issue, it does seem to have acquired particular prominence just now given the prevalence of social media in young people’s lives.

In addressing these issues, we need open and honest discussions about what “lad culture” means and where the boundaries of acceptability are. Issues of free speech are relevant here, with the right to free speech being fundamental to the identity of universities. So where, for instance, should the line be drawn along a spectrum of drink-fuelled pranks, offensive comments and misogynistic banter? Where do offensive but arguably legitimate comments turn into unacceptable conduct? There are also difficult issues of proportionality of response. While some of the issues may be inter-linked, it is important to identify, on the one hand, broader discussions relating to student culture and behaviour, and on the other, how universities deal with alleged criminal acts such as rape and sexual assault that involve the police.

While this is a challenging area, I am acutely aware, and reassured, that universities across the land are taking a proactive role in working out solutions and tackling the issues, often working in partnership with each other.

A number of institutions have, for example, implemented compulsory sexual consent workshops for new students. Others have joined together and there are a number of joint initiatives across the sector aimed at supporting institutions in addressing sexual harassment specifically, as well as looking more broadly at tackling any form of harassment, intimidation or violence against students. Apilot scheme has been launched by the National Union of Students, working with nine participating universities. Each university will build its own strategy and share best practice with the other students’ unions.

While universities are autonomous organisations and will have their own policies and procedures on dealing with such matters, the priority will be to share good practice and to explore ways of working together on this area.

Over the last few months, Universities UK has started work on a programme – building on the range of work already going on in universities – which will be looking at ways in which we can support institutions further in taking a proactive approach to addressing any form of harassment or violence against students. We will have updates on this work in the coming weeks.

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