How can universities help prevent sexual harassment and hate crime on campus?

13 Mar 2018



A recent Stonewall poll found that nearly one in four (23%) of people aged 18-24 reported being the target of hate due to their sexual orientation or gender identity in the last month. Furthermore, 72% of respondents in this age group reported witnessing such abuse towards other people in this period.


With the majority of university students falling in this age group, and with a rising proportion of 18-year-olds applying to university, these issues clearly impact the UK student population. A 2016 NUS report found that 60% of students have witnessed bullying related to sexual orientation. The NUS No Place For Hate survey revealed that 18% of students have experienced at least one racial hate incident, with many describing how they alter their behaviour in an attempt to avoid being targeted.


More than half (54%) of students report experiencing sexual harassment. In some cities, concerns raised by young women have led to unwanted sexual advances and verbal abuse against women now being recorded as a hate crime.


Universities must have a plan of action when it comes to understanding and addressing issues of harassment.


Fragmented support


The Universities UK Changing the Culture report on violence against women, harassment and hate crime was published in 2016, alongside much-needed guidance on how universities can both discourage and deal with these incidents. Over a year on, while pockets of good practice are visible, standards vary widely between institutions. Universities are still criticised for a lack of urgency in addressing these problems, particularly the issue of staff-to-student sexual harassment.


The UUK report also identified the growing prevalence of hate crime and online harassment on university campuses. HEFCE have since awarded £1.8m to 45 universities and colleges to undertake work in this area, and UUK plan to work with the University of Bedfordshire to produce sector guidance on mitigating cyberbullying. While such developments are valuable, universities need to adopt a sector-wide, integrated approach to fully understand the nature and extent of these issues, and better work together to develop effective preventative solutions.



The ProtectED approach


Over the last three years, a team of University of Salford academics and security experts K7 Compliance, have been developing ProtectED – the first national accreditation scheme aimed at ensuring the safety, security and wellbeing of university students.


The ProtectED Code of Practice was published earlier this year, setting a standard for universities to benchmark their processes and procedures against in the following areas: core institutional security; student wellbeing and mental health; international students; student harassment and sexual assault; and the student night out. This holistic approach recognises that universities can significantly contribute to the safety, security and wellbeing of students both on and off campus, online and 24/7. In reality, these student experience issues are often interrelated — if an international students feel unsafe, or a student is sexually harassed, this can also affect their mental wellbeing.


Applications for ProtectED accreditation are assessed via a process of peer review and a  'verification visit' to the institution by approved ProtectED Assessors. Universities must meet the criteria describing the minimum achievement level for all indicators in the ProtectED code of practice, which are illustrated by case studies and good practice guidance. Indicators include having a formal policy on harassment, sexual assault and cyberbullying that describes a university-wide approach to understanding and tackling these issues. Policies should ideally address the following areas:


1. Awareness-raising and promoting support services


One way of challenging harassment or hate is through events that celebrate diversity, encourage integration and signpost support. The University of Strathclyde’s annual Diversity Week is a good example of this, enabling students and staff to learn about different cultures and perspectives.


Universities can train students and staff to recognise and effectively deal with hate and harassment, in person and online. The NUS Cyberbullying Briefing outlines the various forms of online harassment, how universities can respond, and offers support resources. Dudley College Union students have participated in thinkuknow workshops to make them more aware of risks associated with their online activities.