The University of Bristol were instrumental in setting up Bristol Zero Tolerance and championing the issue of addressing gender-based violence by creating the Forum Against Sexual Violence and Harassment with UWE, and other partners, to better support students. We caught up with Professor Judith Squires, Pro Vice-Chancellor, to find out what they have been working on and what they are still planning to do.
Professor Squires started by telling us some of the history of Bristol Zero Tolerance: “The Zero Tolerance initiative came from a conversation Jane Harrington [Vice Chancellor at UWE] and Penny Gane [Chair of Bristol Women’s Commission] and I were having when we were thinking about the work that the Bristol Women’s Commission could do that would impact positively within the Universities and across the city, and we thought that having a Zero Tolerance campaign would be a really good way of focusing attention. It was something that mattered hugely to the Universities but wasn’t a university specific issue – it came from that conversation which was facilitated by the Bristol Women’s Commission… [which] has been a really useful forum for creating this kind of initiative, I know it is doing a wide range of things but this seems to me to be a good example of how effective it has been so far.”
Creating Bristol as a Zero Tolerance City means “a happy city! – a city that is a fun and safe place to be wherever you are, and whatever time of night and whatever circumstances. That people can feel confident that this is a supportive and safe city… One where everybody in the city understands what would constitute unacceptable behaviour and actions, and feels confident that bodies within the city are there to provide them with support if they need it and that action will be taken to make sure that we treat each other on a consensual basis at all times.”
For Professor Squires, signing up to Bristol Zero Tolerance is also personal: “It’s something that I personally feel really strongly about, and as the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students who has responsibility for the wellbeing of students at the University it seems to me to be an absolutely foundational issue because if students don’t feel safe and confident in all aspects of their life at university, then we are not supporting them adequately. And we know sadly that this is something where you do need to work at it, because we have incidents reported of students feeling that they are suffering abuse and harassment each year, so really working proactively to help students understand what is appropriate behaviour seems to me an important responsibility for universities.”
‘Really working proactively to help students understand what is appropriate behaviour seems to me an important responsibility for universities.’ – Professor Judith Squires
The University of Bristol have been working on a variety of projects with their students and others which feed into their Bristol Zero Tolerance action plan. This includes a presentation on consent for all new students as part of the Unismart initiative and introducing online induction courses for all students to ensure that when they first arrive, expectations of behaviour are set appropriately for them and to make sure that all students are informed and understand what consent means. This has also included working with the Student’s Union to deliver sexual consent workshops in partnership with SARSAS and raising awareness through their Play Pause Stop campaign. As Professor Squires notes, “it’s been really important that we get good advice about how to do that sensitively and appropriately in a way that is most likely to impact on students’ behaviour, and also to monitor the effectiveness of those workshops. Also drawing on some of the expertise that we have from some of our academic researchers both at UWE and here at the University of Bristol so that we are trying to take some of the expertise we have got in the University and in the city and to work with the Students Union, to make sure that we are really helping students develop clarity when they first arrive about what would constitute harassment and abuse, what rape is and what consent looks like, so that we are clear and can reduce the number of incidents as much as possible and so that we are being more proactive rather than just trying to deal with things in terms of disciplinary action once it’s too late.”
This work has had positive feedback from students but there has also been a rise in the reporting of incidents of gender-based violence. However, as Professor Squires says, “that is possibly inevitable when you are raising people’s awareness about what constitutes consent. We have now improved our mechanisms for encouraging people to come forward, keeping a record of when it is reported and monitoring that, so that we are now recording increased incidents but I think that’s part of the process of being more overt about the extent to which quite a lot of students do experience harassment, and encouraging them to come forward and report it as a first step in being able to deal with it.”
The University of Bristol have also created jointly with the University of the West of England (UWE) a new Forum Against Sexual Violence and Harassment with members of academic staff and professional services and the two student unions, plus representatives from key organisations across the city, including SARSAS, Avon and Somerset Police, Bristol Zero Tolerance, and others to create a cross-institutional joined-up approach. This includes working with the Police to make sure that data is shared about reported incidents so that internal disciplinary procedures can be aligned with criminal procedures. The Forum has also led to a project working on the licensing and training for nightclubs and taxis to ensure student safety. As Professor Squires notes, it is also about “supporting our students who have experienced assault or harassment, being able to point them in the direction of people with dedicated professional expertise on these issues…. So this is the first time that we have had such a body and I think it has worked really well to be able to gather together all the initiatives that are taking place, identify how we can best support them and learn from each other’s practices, because both universities have got different initiatives in this area so we can learn from those as well as working with the city… I hope that this is going to be a really useful new forum for making sure that we are proactive in delivering on our actions in relation to the pledge that we have signed.”
For all these reasons, the University of Bristol views Zero Tolerance as an important initiative to be involved in. “It’s part of our commitment to engaging with the city – we know that students are a large proportion of the city, the two universities combined have about 50,000 students, which is 10% of the city’s overall population – and if we can be changing behaviours and beliefs in our student body we can have, I hope, quite a big impact on the city immediately and shape the expectations of future generations as well. We are hoping to make a positive contribution, not only within the universities, but more widely in the city.” Professor Squires is also keen to involve students in supporting the initiative and other services in Bristol. “The profile of Bristol Zero Tolerance across the city is a useful framework for thinking about how we can encourage students to engage more in activities that support initiatives like this, because we have a lot of students with particular expertise and personal interest which might be a useful resource.”
We look forward to working with the University of Bristol and its students to raise awareness and continue this important work.
‘If we can be changing behaviours and beliefs in our student body we can have, I hope, quite a big impact on the city immediately and shape the expectations of future generations as well.’ – Professor Judith Squires