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Taking action to address student harassment and sexual assault

Taking action to address student harassment and sexual assault

By Dr. Lucy Winrow, ProtectED Review

If you are going to university this month, worrying about things like buying books, decorating your room, or which bit of an exciting new city you will explore first, is all part of the fun. Something you should not have to worry about is dealing with sexual harassment. This can unfortunately happen to anyone, at any stage in life, but reports of sexual harassment being swept under the carpet or inadequately dealt with at UK universities, are unsettling. However, the publication of Universities UK’s Changing the Culture report in September last year provided universities with some much-needed guidance on this issue. HEFCE funding has boosted efforts to drive improvements in student support, with an investment of £2.45m into a wide range of university schemes. February 2017 also saw the launch of ProtectED – a national accreditation scheme for student safety, security and wellbeing at UK universities.


The ProtectED Code of Practice brings together best practice guidance (including all Changing the Culture recommendations) and university case studies, creating a ‘gold standard’ benchmark for universities to measure their policies and procedures against, in the following areas:

  • Core university security;
  • Student Mental Health and Wellbeing;
  • International students (safety and wellbeing);
  • Student harassment and sexual assault, and;
  • The Student night out.

A review panel and verification visit confirm that a university meets the minimum level of support in all areas, before they are awarded ProtectED accreditation; this will make it easier for students to identify safer and more supportive universities. The scheme includes measures on raising awareness of sexual assault and communicating a zero tolerance approach; providing staff and student training to tackle this issue; arranging support for students on a night out – in venues, on the street, and on their journey home; and offering accessible ways for students to report incidents. So how are some universities responding to this issue, and how does your university measure up?

Raising awareness

ProtectED recognises that raising awareness of sexual harassment and abuse, what it constitutes, and that it will not be tolerated, is a vital first step in addressing this issue. This may come in the form of consent classes, such as those run by the University of Cambridge in Welcome Week. Consent classes have received some criticism, with suggestions that they are patronising or alienate male students. However, they can help create a conversation around what constitutes a healthy relationship, as well as the available support and reporting options. Other universities run campaigns like The University of Manchester’s ‘We Get It’ which encourages students to take a pledge to stand up to sexual harassment and provides staff training in directing students to the correct support. The University of  Middlesex’s ‘Hear Me Out’ campaign also involves creating an online reporting tool, working with local police to understand and improve the experiences of those who report sexual harassment, and increasing lighting on campus.

Staff and student training

Equipping the whole university population with the skills and confidence to effectively respond to and intervene in incidents of sexual harassment is another key approach included in ProtectED measures. SOAS, University of London, give all new employees compulsory Diversity and Inclusion training to ensure a clear and uniform response to students who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. The University of Stirling offer student workshops on tackling gender-based violence as part of their #isthisok? campaign – this includes challenging victim blaming, understanding the law around consent, sexual harassment and assault, and learning how to safely intervene if someone is in danger.

On a night out

ProtectED measures include ways of keeping students safe and supported on a night out, and universities are encouraged to work with venues, the police, and charities, to this end. The University of Sheffield have adopted the ‘Ask for Angela’ initiative whereby staff in SU venues are trained to support those who feel uncomfortable on a date or who are in receipt of unwanted attention. Such venues are identifiable by displayed posters that let students know they can approach staff for assistance. The University of Plymouth have collaborated with Drinkaware Crew to support students on a night out. ‘Club hosts’ are a reassuring presence in bars and clubs, and their training includes input from Hollaback’s Good Night Out campaign, focusing on how to create a safe and positive atmosphere, identifying vulnerable individuals and safe ways to stop a situation from escalating.

Getting home safely

The University of Kent fund a Street Marshall scheme to help students to get home safely. Street Marshalls are SIA accredited and vetted by Kent Police, and maintain a presence along some of the most popular walkways home from student club nights. More universities are starting to implement a Safe Taxi scheme which allows students to travel home if they do not have any money; students’ unions at The University of Manchester, The University of Cardiff and The University of Sheffield let students ‘pay’ an accredited safe taxi firm with their student ID card. The student can collect their card from the SU the next day and pay the fare. At the University of Gloucester, student volunteers patrol the streets with the police, using the City’s CCTV network and Night Safe radio network to identify vulnerable individuals. Volunteers receive training from Gloucestershire Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, enabling them to signpost support options to students, and they also arrange safe transport home for those who require assistance.

Reporting an incident

The preventative initiatives outlined above align with ProtectED’s approach to student safety and wellbeing. However, should a student need to report an incident of harassment or sexual assault, ProtectED measures include the mandatory provision of accessible ways for students to do this, with the option to remain anonymous. ProtectED universities must also collect data on these incidents within a centralised reporting system. This will enable universities to identify problem areas, and the initiatives that most effectively tackle this behaviour. The University of Birmingham’s ‘You Report, We Support’ scheme includes an online reporting tool and advice on who students can talk to, and the support available within and outside of the University. There is also guidance for staff, and for students who are supporting someone they know who has been harassed or sexually assaulted. The University of Liverpool offer clear guidance on the different reporting options available, advice on reporting immediately and reporting later, as well as contact details and the information you will need to provide.

Take care and take action in Bristol

Take the time to find out about the safety and support schemes that your institution offers. This will help you to keep yourself and your peers safe, and will give you the confidence to speak out against harassment and sexual assault.

In Bristol, the Joint Forum – a partnership of universities, charities and the police – is working to rid the city of gender-based violence. Both The University of Bristol and The University of the West of England and their Student Unions have signed up to Bristol Zero Tolerance and are working to address this issue with their students and staff.

The University of West England have also developed The Intervention Initiative; a free, evidence-based educational resource for addressing sexual coercion and sexual abuse in a university setting. This allows universities to conduct guided sessions with students, helping them to be active bystanders and to identify inappropriate behaviour.

Other campaigns include getting venues to sign up to the Bristol Zero Tolerance pledge, which requires staff to get involved in active bystander training through Good Night Out and Drinkaware and awareness-raising initiatives. You can find out which venues in Bristol are involved so far here and encourage the venues that you use to also sign up for a safer night out.


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