Recent accounts of sexual harassment in UK higher education providers are distressing and very troubling. This is a very important, complex and sensitive issue.
It can be very difficult for students who have experienced sexual misconduct or harassing behaviour to make a complaint. It requires courage and, often, considerable persistence. We agree with The 1752 Group that it is very important to build trust with students so that they feel safe to come forward, and continue to feel safe during the complaints process. In recent years we have seen a gradual rise in complaints to us involving sexual harassment or sexual misconduct and we hope that the increase reflects a growing confidence among students who experience sexual harassment or misconduct to report these issues and make complaints.
We work with higher education providers and student bodies to share good practice on how to approach complaints about sexual misconduct. In recent years we have published a briefing note on complaints involving sexual misconduct and harassment, and we included in our most recent Annual Report some information and examples of complaints we have seen. As well as our own guidance, we work with other organisations in the higher education sector to contribute to developing thinking around good practice in this area. We also work closely with the OfS, HEFCW and other relevant organisations to highlight any systemic issues that we identify in the complaints we see.
The 1752 Group’s letter highlights a particular concern about multiple complaints about the same individual. We agree that it is important for higher education providers to be able to identify potential patterns of behaviour when more than one complaint is made about a student or staff member.
When students approach us as a group we can consider their complaints together under our normal processes. As The 1752 Group’s letter rightly points out, our Large Group Complaints process is not appropriate for complaints of this nature; it is designed for complaints where there is a high degree of commonality and where the complaints can be considered collectively (for example, an issue affecting a cohort of students on a particular course), rather than complaints that are personal and unique to the particular situation.
We are an ombuds organisation rather than a regulator, and our focus is on how the provider has handled the student’s complaint, and whether the outcome was reasonable. This includes looking at whether a student’s concerns were taken seriously, whether appropriate action was taken when the concern was first raised, and whether the student was properly supported and guided through the process. Where the provider is aware of other similar concerns raised about the behaviour of the same individual, we would expect the provider to give careful consideration as to whether, when and how those issues may be considered during any disciplinary process. The student making the complaint should always be given a clear outcome to their complaint, and a remedy for any impact the behaviour has had on them, even where the student can’t be given full information about another person’s disciplinary case.
As The 1752 Group’s letter acknowledges, complaints in this area can be very challenging for higher education providers to investigate and resolve. There are particular complexities in balancing the need for reporting students to know the outcome of their complaint, and the data protection rights of other individuals. We have been working with others in the sector and the Information Commissioner’s Office to look at how clarity in this area can be improved and we will continue to contribute to work on this.