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Investigation: Sexual Misconduct at the University of Bath

CW: Sexual harassment, Rape

As students around the country pick up their degree certificates at graduation ceremonies, for many the experience of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape has formed a painful component of their student life. Even more painful is the widespread feeling that universities throughout the UK and beyond seem ill-equipped to deal with sexual misconduct, and repeatedly fail to listen to victims.

cc: Bath Time

National context

Over the last few years a string of failures has emerged from universities across the UK as they struggle to deal effectively with cases of sexual misconduct. The Higher Education sector appears to be waking up to these issues, but as the cases below show, there is much more to be done as this area receives growing public attention. 

After receiving 119 complaints of sexual misconduct between students in 9 months, the University of Cambridge in February 2018 confessed it had a “significant problem”with sexual misconduct.

At the time, the University told The Guardiannewspaper that it had expected a high number of reports because of the anonymous nature of the system, introduced in May 2017 as part of its Breaking the Silencecampaign. Cambridge has since led the way in developing procedures for filing a report and of the subsequent investigation and disciplinary hearings.

However, progress elsewhere has been slow. The #ShameOnYouWarwick rape chat scandal in early 2019 exposed how the University struggled to handle the fallout and disciplinary process that followed the exposure of a group chat in which rape threats and racist comments were made.

This was followed by a BBC investigation which found that the University of Exeter had taken over a year to deal with a number of sex assault complaints, leading to accusations that the University was “silencing” those making complaints. 

In response to the growing zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct, students across the UK are increasingly taking to social media to share their own sexual assault and rape stories. During May, there were more than 15,000 retweets of allegations from students across the UK. 

In statements made during the BBC podcast The Next Episode, NUS Women’s Officer, Sarah Lasoye, expressed that victims are doing this because universities are ineffective in dealing with students’ experiences. 

The universities regulator, the Office for Students, is encouraging universities to do more to tackle the issue. Its Chief Executive, Nicola Dandridge, told The Independentnewspaper in May that: “Universities and colleges should do all they can to prevent sexual harassment, put in place measures so that students feel safe and supported to report it, and ensure that accusations are dealt with swiftly and effectively.”

In response to the issue, sector body Universities UK has worked in partnership with legal advisors Pinsent Masons to publish guidance for universities handling potentially criminal misconduct

The guidance, published in October 2016, followed a review of policy and procedure documentation at 25 UK Universities, and concluded that more needs to be done if Universities wish to avoid failing victims. 

The guidance makes specific recommendations on a host of topics including when to make referrals to the police, how to handle internal disciplinary procedures and record keeping.

“Sexual misconduct has always been an issue in the Higher Education sector but the number of incidents hitting the headlines recently reflects the growing urgency of the topic. However, the sector is ill–equipped to tackle this issue and work to catch up on best practice guidance and resourcing needs to be a top priority.

Alisha Lobo, The SU’s Community Officer

In light of these national events, how does the University of Bath’s work on sexual misconduct compare? Given the heightened interest and promise of #NeverOK, Bath Timehas taken a closer look into the strength of University’s policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct, aiming to discover whether the promises of #NeverOK have put a stop to Bath students being failed by a nationally broken system. Our investigation and Freedom of Information request has shone light on some key areas of concerns including disciplinary outcomes, gaps in policy and overly complicated documentation.

The campaign

In September 2017, the #NeverOK campaignwas launched by the University and The SU with a clear message: harassment of any form will not be tolerated. The campaign has received financial support from the Office for Students and has been particularly important in encouraging victims to come forward and report incidents of sexual misconduct and other forms of harassment, including bullying and discrimination. On the University’s website, the #NeverOK campaign claims to “represent the University’s commitment to creating a community where harassment and assault are never tolerated, and all students, staff and visitors feel safe and valued”. 

Penalties for sexual misconduct

The Bath Time freedom of information request revealed an area of concern over the penalties issued by the University following disciplinary proceedings related to sexual misconduct.Since the 2008/09 academic year, there have been 41 reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In cases involving disciplinary penalties, one 2-week suspension was issued and one police referral. More frequent outcomes were fines ranging from £75 to £360 and training referrals. Outcomes of rape cases were not given in response to the information request, when questioned on this a University spokesperson stated:

“In disclosing information under the Freedom of Information Act, the University has to comply with the UK’s data protection laws. As a result, information that might identify individuals generally has to be withheld. The data supplied refers to allegations and should not be taken as meaning that these were proven, or necessarily satisfied the requirements of our disciplinary processes. In addition, many of the alleged perpetrators had no connection with the University.”

When asked what the training sessions perpetrators were referred to included, a spokesperson initially responded:

“The University is reviewing a training course on positive masculinity which has been successfully delivered at another University and this will be ready to be delivered shortly in partnership with a well-respected local charity.”

When pushed for a more direct response in relation to past training referrals, it was added that:

“In general terms, the aim of the training is to help students understand why the behaviour was unacceptable, why it needs to change and to signpost support to avoid such behaviours recurring. We aren’t commenting on individual student disciplinary cases.”

Rape reporting

In addition to these findings, an information request revealed that 13 reports of rape were received by the University throughout this same period. Reports submitted through the Report and Support Tool (launched September 2017) were not included in these counts. Seven reports of sexual harassment, 4 of which were alleged rapes, have been received through this mechanism as revealed by our FOI request. The Report & Support data was given separately due to the limited information required to make a report through the mechanism, there is no way of being sure that multiple reports don’t refer to the same event. This means that since September 2008, the University received reports of between 13 and 17 instances of alleged rape. The data received from this information request could include reports made of instances involving staff or members of the public.

Zero tolerance?

As part of the #NeverOK campaign, the University pledged to create a “community free from harassment.”  With few recorded expulsions or suspensions, the information request revealed a reality where victims of sexual misconduct could also be put in a position where they are expected to continue to live and study in close proximity to their perpetrators. The University has also vouched to never tolerate harassment or assault in its pledge, though this does not appear to be reflected in the penalties for sexual misconduct revealed by the information request.

When asked how the University defines zero-tolerance, as referenced in the #NeverOK campaign, a spokesperson responded:

“The #NeverOK campaign represents the University’s commitment to creating a community where harassment and assault are never tolerated, and all students, staff and visitors feel safe and valued. It provides training, resources and marketing materials to empower people to speak out against harassment. The campaign aims to help promote a culture of respect and safety for all staff and students on campus.”

Over-complex documentation

Given the prominence of the #NeverOK campaign, it seems unusual that procedural guidance for events following reports of sexual misconduct remain buried deep within the University’s ‘Dignity and Respect Policy and Procedure for Staff and Students’.  This 5,000 word document covers all forms of bullying and harassment and claims to be “specifically designed to deal with such issues” as sexual misconduct.  Upon further research, however, the policy is overly complex, is only available in English and has limited applicability to victims of sexual misconduct, with only 40 words dedicated specifically to the topic. It is unable to align with the pledges made under the #NeverOK campaign as the out-dated policy has not been updated since February 2016; it was last reviewed in June 2017, four months before the #NeverOK campaign was launched.  

Defining sexual misconduct

Within the 16-page policy, there is only one reference to “offensive sexual behaviour” as an example of harassment. There is no mention of sexual assault or rape. Instead, the University provides a broader definition of sexual harassment on its website,and an all-encompassing definition of misconduct within its regulationsreferences back to the Dignity and Respect policy.While vagueness within such policy can allow flexibility to deal with nuanced and unique cases, the University’s policies fail to meet the standard of clarity set by sector guidelines or other organisations such as the University of Cambridge.

When asked about how the University defines sexual assault and rape, a spokesperson responded:

“In line with UUK guidance, we use the term sexual misconduct in our policies and regulations, rather than criminal law terms such as rape or assault. The University is updating its Dignity & Respect Policy and Procedure and the revised policy will have a section defining sexual misconduct.”

The policy also leaves much to be desired in terms of understanding the procedures following a complaint of sexual misconduct. This is not comparable to the University of Cambridge’s policy which has a stand-alone document outlining the specifics of disciplinary processes and guiding principles, helping create a transparent and just process. Our University’s policies and procedures fall below the expected standards of the Good Practice Framework set by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) who oversee complaint policies in higher education. The University’s current policy does not meet standards of clarification or easy navigation and does not set clear time limits for the complaints process to be carried out, all of these components are described with clarity and precise recommendations for implementation are provided by the OIA.

When asked why policy has not been updated since the initiation of the #NeverOK campaign, a University spokesperson said:

“The University is currently updating relevant policies and procedures to further strengthen our approach. Our Student Complaints and Disciplinary Procedures are being revised, based on best practice from across the sector, Office of the Independent Adjudicator and UUK guidance, and discussions with key stakeholders in the student body and elsewhere. In addition, the Dignity and Respect policy is being substantially updated by our Equality and Diversity, Student Services and Human Resources teams and is being currently consulted on with our trade unions. Guidance for students is also being improved.”

This response was further questioned, Bath Time asked why relevant policies and procedures were only being updated now, to which the spokespersons response was:

“We regularly seek to learn from best practice and update our processes. The current version of the Dignity & Respect Policy was approved in June 2017. The work on updating the Dignity & Respect Policy and Procedure has been informed by the 1752 Group and McAllister Olivarius report which was published in September 2018 and the OIA Good Practice Framework on Disciplinary Procedures which was published in October 2018. The #NeverOK campaign also helped us map our processes for providing support and advice to students and staff and identify areas for improvement.”

Linking with The SU

In comparison, The SU has a more concise complaints and disciplinary procedure.A separate zero-tolerance policy, passed by student vote, supports The SU’s pledge to create a “community free from harassment” and victims of alleged sexual misconduct can make a complaint against students or staff through a defined disciplinary process.Clear timescales are provided for each stage of the process and victims can find contact information for the relevant staff and officers who might be involved. This provides clarity for victims and alleged perpetrators as to how the complaint is being dealt with. Clear guidelines are also offered regarding sanctions, in the form of bans from SU activities and facilities, which are specific to the type of misconduct. 

Campus Consistency and Communication

University policy, on the other hand, lacks the same level of transparency and consistency in the issuing of sanctions. However, it is important to note that in cases of potential sexual misconduct and other serious incidents, The SU refers the complaint to the University for investigation as the higher-level authority. Given the issues highlighted above, this is a cause for concern for anyone who may have been the victim of an alleged sexual misconduct.

It’s also clear from the policy and procedure documents, and the lack of cross-referencing, that there are two separate processes at play here, with little sense of how they may or may not join together. The independence of the two organisations and the separation of their disciplinary processes means that The SU does not routinely pick up on complaints made to the University. This means that Bath lacks a campus-wide approach to handling sexual misconduct complaints. While acknowledging that The SU’s independence is critical to the majority of its key functions, there are many areas where the two organisations could collaborate their efforts to better support victims and bring campus closer to the “harassment-free” pledge in the #NeverOK campaign. These areas for collaboration could include disciplinary outcomes and working together to form equally robust policies, this could be achieved through the more effective use of the partnership and communication established initially through the joint #NeverOK campaign.

What follows a report?

What is apparent when comparing the performance of our University to the standard set by sector guidelines and other universities is that Bath is limited in its provision of information detailing what happens after an incident is reported. There are currently no existing documents or guides which clearly articulate this information to victims. By comparison this is clearly established in the University of Cambridge’s new policy documentation.

In contrast, Student Services offer a guidefor alleged perpetrators who are asked to attend a disciplinary meeting following a reported incident. The online guide includes detailed information about the different stages of the disciplinary process, how to prepare and the possible outcomes. The document directs alleged perpetrators to Student Services and The SU Advice and Support team who are available to help the student prepare a case and provide other forms of support.

The Report and Support tool, along with the #NeverOK campaign and other associated work, did bring about clear and robust procedures for how a report of sexual misconduct is handled in the first instance. However, it remains unclear how victims are supported through the disciplinary process, and how progress of the investigation is communicated to them. This is despite the requirements for victims to give evidence and the Universities UK guidance making clear that the pressure such a process places on the victim should be considered.

Bath Time editorial comment

The importance of the messages of the #NeverOK campaign is clear in the campaign’s projection throughout campus. However, in light of our findings, it is evident that posters and platitudes are simply not enough. The united front of the campaign needs to be reflected in policy too. Collaboration between The SU and University is key to ensuring that support for victims of sexual misconduct is comprehensive.  Expanding the zero-tolerance policy beyond The SU is also required for consistency in challenging sexual misconduct. 

Despite having a duty of care for all students, it is concerning that our University’s own policies are fundamentally flawed in achieving a “community free from harassment”. Committing to policies as well as investing time and consideration into adequate support services for students should not be optional. The University should reflect on how it attempts to put its pledge into action – now is Bath’s chance to get it right and ensure that sexual misconduct truly is #NeverOK.

Reforming the complaints and disciplinary system at Bath is a priority of the utmost importance to the success of the #NeverOK campaign. As an SU we are committed to working in partnership with the University to do what we can to ensure that there is a consistent and integrated approach across campus. We remain hopeful of the University’s review of procedures to do this, at the same time we hope this will offer better support to the victims of sexual misconduct.

Alisha Lobo, The SU’s Community Officer

Alisha has recently written an editorial discussing the debate surrounding defining zero tolerance for think-tank WonkHE, you can read it here.

In response to these findings the University of Bath’s Pro-Vice Chancellor of Learning & Teaching, Peter Lambert, stated:

“The wellbeing of our students is of paramount importance to us and we take any form of harassment, sexual misconduct or violence towards members of our community extremely seriously. We would urge students to report any cases using our confidential Report and Support Tool and to get in touch with Student Services for support. Student Services has a wellbeing programme for students, providing welfare support, a counselling service, and daily drop-in session on campus.

“The University of Bath and The SU launched the #NeverOK campaign to deliver training and resources focused on empowering people to speak out against sexual harassment. The campaign aims to promote a culture of respect and safety for all students and staff on campus and has been well received by our community.

“Following a review, we are updating relevant policies and procedures to strengthen our approach. We are currently substantially updating a number of documents, consulting with key stakeholders, including the Students’ Union, and drawing on best practice from across the sector. This has included working with The Bridge, a well-respected Sexual Assault Referral Centre. The new procedures and regulations are due to be in place for the start of Semester One in September.”

If you have any thoughts, concerns or stories you would like to share regarding the issues discussed in this article, please do not hesitate to leave a comment on this article or drop us an email at su-bathtime-editor@bath.ac.uk. 

If you, or your friend, have been harassed or assaulted or affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can turn for support to: 

The SU Advice Centre, in the Student Centre. You can call them on 01225 386906 or email them using suadvice@bath.ac.uk

Or Student Services, 4 West. You can call them on 01225 383838 or email them studentservices@bath.ac.uk. 

Or make a report online at www.bath.ac.uk/campaigns/report-and-support/

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