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OfS Consultation - Harassment and Sexual Misconduct

on Wednesday, 01 March 2023.

On 23 February 2023, the Office for Students launched a major consultation on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct.

The regulator's work in this area can be traced back to 2017 when HEFCE started funding Catalyst project research into student safeguarding in response to recommendations made by UUK's 'Changing the Culture' campaign. Recognition of the need to address historically deficient approaches led to the publication of standards and a statement of expectations in 2021, with the aim of helping providers to develop and implement systems, policies and processes able to prevent and respond to incidents. An independent evaluation of progress under this voluntary regime found enhanced awareness of the issue and some improvements but insufficient effectiveness. Against this backdrop, the OfS is now considering a more prescriptive and consistent approach that will give students more confidence in their HE providers and it is with that goal that the consultation has been launched.

The measures the OfS is considering are wide ranging and those implemented will be contained in a new ongoing condition of registration (E6 - harassment and sexual misconduct). These include the following:

  • Agreed definitions of harassment and sexual misconduct drawn from statutory definitions within the Equality Act 2010, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
  • A requirement for providers to develop and publish a single document explaining their approach to tackling harassment and misconduct, including prescribed information about how students are protected and supported, the handling of disclosures, investigations and decisions and how staff and students are trained in relation to these issues.
  • A requirement for providers to have the capacity and resources to comply with E6.
  • A requirement for providers to comply with E6 in a manner consistent with the freedom of speech principles set out in the condition.
  • A prohibition on providers restricting the disclosure of information about an allegation of harassment or sexual misconduct that involves or affects one or more students or relying on pre-existing prohibitions.
  • A requirement relating to the treatment of personal relationships between students and relevant staff, the latter being those who have direct or indirect professional responsibilities in relation to a student.

In relation to this last requirement the OfS has put forward two possible approaches. The OfS's preferred Option A would be to require relevant staff members to disclose personal relationships with any students and for providers to maintain a register of these relationships and take all reasonable steps to manage and address any actual or potential conflict of interest.

Option B would be more stringent, requiring providers to take all reasonable steps to prohibit any relevant staff member from having a personal relationship with any student and to take appropriate steps, which would normally be dismissal of the staff member, if they refused to end a personal relationship.

A number of important issues arise from these proposals, including the tension between ensuring academic freedom and protecting students from harassment, the use of non-disclosure agreements, institutional autonomy and the personal freedom of students and staff.

The consultation closes on 4 May 2023. To assist both providers and students to contribute, the OfS has scheduled two webinars (7 March for providers and 9 March for students and their representatives) and two roundtable events (one online and one in person) in April.

The OfS will publish a summary of responses later in 2023 and explain how and why it arrived at its decisions.  

For further information, please contact Kris Robbetts in our Higher Education team on 0117 314 5427. Alternatively, please complete the form below.

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