In March, Universities UK released the ‘one year on’ report, looking at progress made by universities in the wake of their 2016 Changing the Culture taskforce recommendations for dealing with violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.
The new report shows that although 'significant but variable' progress has been made by UK universities to embed change within their policies and processes, more needs to be done. Indeed, a 2018 national student survey by Revolt Sexual Assault revealed that 70% of female students say they have experienced sexual violence at university.
Despite the injection of funds to English HE providers from Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Catalyst calls, the recent UUK report identifies that finding sustainable funding sources is still a barrier for institutions seeking to align themselves with Changing the Culture recommendations. The task of delivering training to students and staff across larger institutions is also proving a challenge.
Recognising the need for universities to find effective and cost effective ways to support student safety and wellbeing, the ProtectED Code of Practice embeds an approach of partnership working: between university departments; between universities and external expert individuals and organisations; and between different universities. This facilitates the sharing of good practice (while reducing the risk of duplicating work), and the pooling of expertise, experience and resources.
At the University of Exeter Students’ Guild, the #NeverOk campaign has been operating since 2014, helping to educate the University community on what constitutes sexual harassment and on the support available for those affected by this behaviour. Established by the then-elected sabbatical team, those involved in implementing campaign initiatives have drawn upon external expertise, including that of local charity Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services (Devon Rape Crisis).
Devon Rape Crisis support those dealing with rape or sexual abuse, via a dedicated helpline, e-mails, and face-to-face meetings, as well as offering a counselling service for young women and men aged 13-25. The charity have been a referral option for the University for a number of years, and over the last year in particular, the two have collaborated on a range of initiatives to help change the culture on campus around incidents of sexual violence.
The Changing the Culture report recommends that universities “take meaningful steps to embed into their human resources processes (such as contracts, training, inductions) measures to ensure staff understand the importance of fostering a zero-tolerance culture and are empowered to take responsibility for this.” Mandy Barnes, a volunteer and training co-ordinator at Devon Rape Crisis has been working with the University of Exeter to provide twelve training sessions across a variety of groups, including heads of departments, student support services and Guild staff. Training sessions last for four hours and help participants to understand what constitutes sexual violence and deal with disclosures, as well as develop appropriate first response procedures.
The training can also equip participants with the tools and confidence to respond appropriately to incidents as and when they arise, but crucially, it can also help “take the blinkers off,” as Mandy explains: “People often believe that there is not a problem with sexual violence in their organisation because they are not being approached with disclosures. We get them to think about the barriers facing those who may want to disclose an incident, and how a lack of disclosures can actually be a warning sign. They should be asking themselves ‘why aren’t I being approached?’ ” Providing training for university staff can therefore help open up these conversations, shift barriers and challenge myths, in addition to creating a supportive space where participants can share their experiences.
The training also helps staff to pick up on what students are trying to tell them, particularly if students feel uncomfortable talking about an incident. Finding the appropriate, supportive response also means challenging staff on certain myths that exist around sexual violence which can act as barriers to disclosures and seeking help — for example, students may feel that they are to blame if they were drinking alcohol at the time, or were walking alone at night.
In the event that a student is targeted by sexual violence, it is also vital that they know who to speak to, and the Changing the Culture report further recommends that universities have clearly identifiable members of staff who can signpost students to support options, both internal and external to the institution. Mandy explains that an established channel of communication exists between the University of Exeter and Devon Rape Crisis whereby University wellbeing staff take the lead upon receiving a disclosure. They get permission from the student to share their basic contact details, and the type of support they are looking for, with the charity. This process is safe and confidential, and no information is shared without the student’s express permission.
The Changing the Culture report also recommends that universities embed “a zero-tolerance approach across all institutional activities,” including student inductions, and for the first time in the 2017/18 academic year, students starting their studies at the University of Exeter were asked to complete an online consent awareness quiz which is linked to the student registration process. Devon Rape Crisis provided input and expertise during the development of the quiz — findings included that 86 respondents believed they were entitled to sex if they paid for someone’s dinner and drinks on a night out, demonstrating the importance of educating young people on consent.
If you would like more information on the support services and training offered by Devon Rape Crisis, you can contact Mandy Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is your university doing to tackle sexual violence? We would like to hear from you.
Notes: Section 6 of the Student Harassment and Sexual Assault Instrument of the ProtectED Code of Practice requires members to develop a PSWP (ProtectED Safety and Wellbeing Partnership), working across internal departments and with external agencies, experts and other HEIs, to share experiences and best practice, and pool resources.