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Tackling sexual harassment and violence – New UUK taskforce

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK
Student studing in library
Yesterday marked the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the beginning of 16 days of global activism to end violence against women and girls around the world.

Tackling sexual harassment and violence has also been a priority for the UK government and in November 2010, the Home Office published its cross-government strategy Call to end violence against women and girls. Although the higher education sector was not cited specifically in the government’s call to action, this is an area where both universities and students’ unions take their responsibilities seriously and work hard, often together, to create an inclusive culture and a safe, tolerant and welcoming environment.

There is, however, more that needs to be done which is why harassment and violence against women are the focus of a new taskforce which has been set up by Universities UK to explore what action needs to be taken.

Over the last few years, the National Union of Students has undertaken research to try and understand the nature and scale of the problem. A recent poll following freshers week this year revealed that 17% of respondents said they had been victim of some form of sexual harassment during their first week of term. In 2010, the NUS found that 68% of women students surveyed said they had been subject to either verbal or physical assault. Yet the numbers of incidents recorded by universities are generally lower than these figures would suggest, highlighting a real concern that students may not always feel confident in reporting experiences to their institution. This can have an extremely damaging impact, especially if a student does not receive the support they need.

The NUS has also been particularly active in highlighting their concerns with the prevalence of ‘lad culture’ on university campuses and the need to take action to ‘dismantle this’. Lad culture is difficult to define, but in its relationship to violence against women and sexual harassment it could be said to encompass a set of misogynist and sexist attitudes and behaviours. It is also often associated with excessive drinking. ‘Lad culture’ has been seen as creating a mob mentality, and one which is perpetuated by both male and female students. A number of reports in the media have shone a spotlight on this behaviour and its detrimental impact. While this does not automatically equate to violence against women and sexual harassment, there is a serious concern that it can be a contributing factor which normalises sexual harassment and violence against women.

At the first meeting of the taskforce earlier this month, UUK presented the current evidence on the nature and scale of the problem (a paper will be published shortly setting this out in more detail). To begin building an understanding of the institutional response, UUK analysed over 50 responses from universities across the UK on their approach to address harassment. Activities in universities range from running consent workshops and the creation of online guidance for students affected by harassment, to establishing internal working groups to examine and tackle the problem. A number of universities also told us about campaigns that were either already being rolled out across campus, or soon to be launched. More often than not, these campaigns represent a cross-institutional effort with the university and students’ union working together. The taskforce is well-placed to explore this joined-up approach as its membership brings together universities, the NUS and academic experts in this area.

The feedback also revealed that a number of challenges remained. These included ensuring institutions had appropriate processes and procedures in place, as well as the broader challenge of achieving cultural and behavioural change on campus. Universities are large communities made up of people from a range of backgrounds, nationalities and beliefs, and communicating and adjusting shared values within this context is not straightforward.

It will be the job of the taskforce to maintain a practical focus which results in tangible recommendations that universities and students’ unions can adapt and implement to suit their own context. Seeking further input from universities, students and key interest groups will form a crucial part of the work for the taskforce over the coming months. Response to the work of the taskforce so far has been extremely positive and universities across the UK must make the most of this opportunity to pro-actively tackle this type of behaviour, which has no place either in student life or any other part of society.

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