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Showing leadership and empowering students: how universities can change campus culture

Professor Geoff Layer

Professor Janet Beer

University of Liverpool

A clearly stated commitment from the most senior leaders in our universities to confront violence against women, harassment and hate crime is critical if we are to tackle such incidents.

It is in that spirit that I, along with all Universities UK members, welcome today's report of the UUK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.

The will to tackle perceived behavioural norms and conventions is likely to require institutional culture change, but no-one can achieve such culture change alone – leadership at all levels of the organisation will need to be ready to challenge the status quo. Such challenge needs to be visible to give confidence to the students on our campuses today that we are all working together to achieve lasting societal change.

Incidents of harassment, hate crime and sexual violence can happen anywhere and it would be naïve to think that such incidents do not take place both on and off campuses and affect our students across the UK; however, the lack of clear reporting means that problems are often hidden. 

Creating an environment which encourages people to speak out 

Clear leadership is required to create an environment in which reporting is encouraged and where students feel safe and are supported when they come forward.. An increase in the number of reports may mean that vice-chancellors and other senior leaders may have to defend their institution's position to their local community and, indeed, nationally. But high numbers of reports do not mean that one institution has a higher level of incidents than another. It is much more likely to indicate that a culture has been developed in which it is easier for people to speak out. Accurate reporting figures are a crucial step towards understanding the issues and addressing the problem.   

Senior leadership in this area will provide visibility and send an unequivocal message to students and staff that harassment, hate crime and violence against women are extremely serious matters. At the University of Liverpool, I supported the Guild of Students 'Call it Out' campaign video which encouraged students to speak up and call it out when they witness oppressive behaviours or sexual harassment on campus.   

Driving cultural change through senior leadership 

Senior leadership will set expectations and encourage staff to take part in new initiatives to tackle these unacceptable behaviours and attitudes. Setting an example from the top will drive the culture change we need, not only on our campuses but in wider society too. 

Culture change requires coordinated communication. This year, all first year students moving into our halls were shown the Cup of Tea video about consent as part of their induction. This was followed up with reminders about expected standards of behaviour as part of the formal university welcome talks. These messages set the institutional tone but more nuanced work is required to achieve systemic change.   

Empowering students to own the agenda 

Student leaders are also critical to achieving culture change; institutional messages are much more powerful when backed up by challenge from peers. This year we provided consent training to over 800 student leaders from our societies and sports clubs. The members of two sports clubs which have historically had cultural issues in relation to harassment have also taken part in consent workshops. These workshops were very well received by participants and provided opportunities to talk about the problem. Working in partnership with specialist charities and the Guild was key to reaching a large number of student leaders and we will continue with this approach.

Setting expectations with these student leaders and targeting groups where there are known issues thus empowers students themselves to be agents of change – talking to their peers and demonstrating the values of the university through their own behaviour. This approach has been supported by students and gives them greater ownership of the agenda. This is particularly important in a culture where many young women and men believe that sexual harassment – particularly online – is part of life and expect to have to tolerate or, at best, ignore it.  

Students who challenge this acceptance are viewed as brave by their peers. We need to support these brave individuals and ensure they know that there are others who will stand with them on every campus in the country. 

Leave a Comment

Graham says:
23 October 2016 at 13:25

The report is most welcome and timely. Sexual offences are underreported. Universities have an opportunity to make a significant contribution to challenging this societal cultural norm. University Councils may well become increasingly sceptical of assurance from executive teams based upon low reporting. As you helpfully indicate this does not necessarily reflect low levels of sexual violence. On the contrary it may be more plausibly linked to a lack of confidence that reports will be handled with appropriate sensitivity and support. There is significant potential to make a real impact in terms of prevention in this challenging are and this is acknowledged in the UUK report. In universities there remains much to be done, but the report seems a solid start. We in university communities will be judged upon our delivery.

Professor Graham Towl

Professor of Forensic Psychology

Durham University, UK.

Catherine Harper
Catherine Harper says:
24 October 2016 at 15:54

Excellent to see a clear and unequivocal message on this subject, and to understand students and their institutions can be the powerful advocates for change necessary for this work. 

Professor Catherine Harper

Deputy Vice-Chancellor designate

University of Chichester

Liz Morrish
Liz Morrish says:
31 October 2016 at 11:53

Excellent statement. Achieving culture change is important for both men and women. Men often feel imprisoned in certain expected roles. As well as institutional policy, there need to be clear points of access to report incidents. There should also be an unambiguous defence of this strategy in an era where 'safe spaces' are being trivialized. 


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