If we’re serious about maintaining our position as a world leader in research, teaching and learning, then we must also be world leaders in student safeguarding and welfare.
Universities UK’s 2016 report ‘Changing the culture’ highlighted the sector’s problems in safeguarding students against sexual harassment and identity-based hate crime, making clear recommendations about what needed to be done.
In the 18 months since its publication we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the level of public awareness of sexual harassment, with universities often in the spotlight. The response of the sector has been strong, with many institutions stepping up, owning their problems and investing in their strategic ability to drive culture change.
This positive response has been facilitated by the transformative impact of over £10 million invested in the sector by HEFCE and universities and colleges, creating 108 projects delivering innovative approaches to tackling sexual harassment and hate crime.
This commitment by the sector was clear at our first conference on student safeguarding on 20 February. Over 150 staff and students came together to network, share learning and inform us about future need and priorities.
The University of Manchester’s safeguarding project is co-produced by staff and students.
The conference was launched with keynote speeches from: Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS; Alison Johns, CEO of the LFHE and CEO-designate of Advance HE; and Sarah Lasoye, NUS Women’s Campaign and student at St George’s, University of London.
The speeches came from three distinct perspectives, but together demonstrated the commitment within the sector to get student safeguarding right and importantly deliver a clear message that for this to be effective and sustainable, we must leave no one behind. Policies and interventions must be iterative and responsive to students from all backgrounds and identities, recognising all aspects of our identity.
Across the day participants learned and networked with other projects in themed break-out sessions looking at topics such as active bystander interventions and digital innovations in student safeguarding.
The conference concluded with a student panel discussing the impact these projects were having directly on students. This was easily my highlight of the day and a reminder of the real difference being made at such a formative and important time in students’ lives.
In particular, what struck me about the student panel – and the conference as a whole – was the passion and drive of all involved and the desire to make a better life for others. The conference felt like a space of activism with a sense of confidence in its aims and objectives – an activism that we should work with and facilitate as we continue to drive positive change in the student interest.
It’s exciting that as we move to the Office for Students, we do so with a momentum driven by a strong established body of work, and clear guidance from Sam Gyimah MP, the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation (in his Strategic Guidance to the Office for Students) that the OfS should work with the sector, providers and students to ‘counter harassment and hate crime in higher education, taking steps to make campuses places of tolerance for all students’.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right. It will take leadership from the whole sector – from institutions, students unions, the OfS and others – to deliver on our obligations. Failure to use this momentum and deliver a truly inclusive and harassment-free learning environment is not an option.
Leadership across the sector, from institutions, OfS, UUK needs to continue.
If you have any questions, please contact Daniel Aldridge, Higher Education Policy Adviser (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion), tel 0117 931 7433, email firstname.lastname@example.org