Home > Blog > Sexual abuse and harassment by university staff against students – further work to address the issue

Sexual abuse and harassment by university staff against students – further work to address the issue

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK

When Universities UK published, at the end of last year, the results of the year-long taskforce into how universities deal with violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students, it was well-received generally by campaign groups and a number of students who have been victims of violence or harassment on campus.​

While the taskforce found evidence that many universities have already taken positive steps to address these issues, it found also that university responses are not always as joined-up as they could be.

The taskforce also identified areas where more work needs to be done, including dealing with incidents of sexual harassment or violence by university staff against students.

The taskforce report – which has been circulated to all universities – made a series of recommendations and said that more work needs to be done to share effective practice across the university sector.

In particular, the report recommended that universities should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence and harassment and ensure they have clear and accessible procedures and reporting systems.

The taskforce was established primarily to focus on violence or harassment perpetrated by students, though the report's main recommendations do also apply to situations where the perpetrator is a member of staff.

The important thing is ensuring that universities' policies and procedures – including existing university policies on staff-student relationships – help support students, whether they report an incident perpetrated by a fellow student or by a member of staff.

Nonetheless, the unique nature of the relationship that exists between university staff and students means that difficult and specific issues can sometimes arise when the perpetrator is a member of staff.

It was clear from the taskforce's work that staff-to-student harassment is a problem that also needs to be acknowledged and tackled. ​


In view of this, Universities UK has, following the launch of the taskforce report:

  • Started working with the NUS and bodies such as the 1752 Group (an organisation working to prevent staff-to-student sexual misconduct and harassment in universities) to look at the issues around preventing and responding to staff-on-student harassment or violence. The solutions to address this could result in further guidance and recommendations for action from Universities UK 

  • Worked with universities to support the implementation of the taskforce's recommendations. This includes developing a directory of good-practice case studies, highlighting how individual universities are taking an institution-wide approach to tackling sexual violence or harassment affecting students, carrying out regular impact assessments of their approach

  • Organised a workshop in March for universities to discuss best practice, including ensuring appropriate governance structures and an understanding and ownership of risk across all relevant university departments

  • Begun work on a survey for universities so they can assess their progress in relation to the taskforce recommendations. The outcomes of the survey will be published at UUK's next national conference on harassment in November 2017.​


The evidence is clear that these issues are not isolated to universities – reflecting behaviours in society generally, including in schools and local communities. Nonetheless, universities are taking a proactive role in preventing and responding to such incidents and highlighting up-front the behaviours that are expected from all students and staff.

During the course of our work, the taskforce heard of many examples of work that individual universities and leaders of support services are doing to address this issue, on their campuses and in their wider community (Durham University, for example, recently published the results of its own sexual violence taskforce).

We also heard from many university leaders who are talking loudly about this issue. The Vice-Chancellor of University of Liverpool Professor Janet Beer (and member of the taskforce), for example, wrote a powerful blog on how a clear commitment from the most senior leaders in our universities to confront violence against women, harassment and hate crime is needed if we are to tackle such incidents.

The taskforce was clear when it published its final report that this was just the start of the sector's work in this area. This was reinforced at the national conference held at Universities UK in November following the launch of the taskforce report.

There is so much more that we need to do to tackle this pernicious problem of harassment and violence in our society. Particularly, I hope the further work we have started on staff-to-student sexual misconduct and harassment will help universities deal with this area. This work could include us circulating further guidance and recommendations for action.

​Our universities must continue to lead the way in ensuring that students can enjoy a safe and positive environment while studying.

As Durham University Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge states in his foreword to their institutions' own taskforce report, 'No students or staff should be subject to any form of sexual violence or misconduct. Such an abuse of power – through sexual violence or misconduct, or otherwise – is categorically at odds with our fundamental values as a university community'.

Leave a Comment

James says:
4 February 2017 at 06:37

Don't you think there is a power imbalance implicit in a zero-tollerance approach? University staff will have been through the system already, where students are experiencing university perhaps for the first time, and so the knowledge of how to raise and place complaints is known to one, and not necessarily to the other. Furthermore, much misconduct must surely result from disorder, whether mental, institutional, or any other source. Surely staff are in a stronger position to influence institutional actions than students. Neither proposition helps social mobility, where a youngster from a disrupted background may wish to seek peace, solace and an independent future at university. Those, such as young carers (it was recently Young Carers Awareness Week) may require support to make such complaints, whilst expressing distress. That makes them vulnerable to abuse. Speaking personally, I hrew up with mental illness at home. Even as an adult, if I see similar such behaviour in an environment other than home, including university, I know it is not always possible to raise the concern. Even police forces reject such concerns, and they have certainly led to aspersions of sexual misconduct - why? Because it is an easy aspersion to levy, especially in the current climate, an especially against men, when there are other taboos to address. A zero-tollerance approach is a very poor second-best to support and proper considered, understood, investigation. If you wnat a safe environment, hard-lining is not always an answer. It exasserbates hate-fuelled conduct. If mental health and well-being were addressed fully and properly, many other problems would not occur, and there would be a more open environment to raise concern even if it did. I also think penalties ought to be harsher for staff that student, to address the imbalance of power, not the other way around simply because the politics is 'easier'.

Supporting care experienced students through university

8 October 2019
UUK's Amy Dicks sets out what universities can do to address the challenges care experienced people face when accessing and completing an undergraduate degree.

Higher education policy priorities for the new prime minister

31 July 2019
UUK's Karmjit Kaur on how new Prime Minister Boris Johnson can can help maximise the role of universities for both his domestic and global ambitions.