Following a growing number of complaints of sexual and verbal assaults against female students.
The letter follows a number of high profile cases raising concerns over the way that universities handle these kinds of allegations, and a survey by the NUS on the prevalence of these issues on campus. Rob Behrens, the chief executive of the OIA, has also warned that the watchdog's caseload is increasing reflecting a 'drink culture in universities that leads to a loss of discipline and thought by students'.
The taskforce, led by Universities UK, is likely to undertake this work over the next 12 months, but as a matter of best practice universities should be looking to take action now, particularly given the continued media interest in this issue, so that they can ensure they are fully equipped to deal with any complaints that they may receive.
What should universities be doing?
As a starting point universities should consider:
- Reviewing policies and procedures
This could include the institution's equality and diversity, drugs and alcohol, student conduct and complaints policies. The policies not only need to be compliant but should also work on a practical level. Most importantly, students and staff need to know what is acceptable conduct, when it is breached, who they should be reporting incidents to and how this should be done.
- Evaluating current training provision
Policies and procedures are only effective if they are implemented properly, students and staff are conversant with them and they are consistently enforced. Universities should consider whether refresher training for staff is required and also think about how to maximise student awareness of the issues. Developing links with the student union to address this issue may be helpful.
- Developing and maintaining positive relationships with local police
Universities will often need to work with the police when incidents of this kind are reported and share information where appropriate. Having a constructive working relationship can help to facilitate this and ensure that incidents are dealt with promptly and effectively.
- Notifying others
If a university is informed of an incident then, depending on the circumstances and nature of the allegation, it could be reportable to insurers. Universities should review the requirements of their insurance policies (most will require notification of circumstances which could give rise to a claim as soon as possible) so that they can act appropriately and ensure that cover is available if required. Depending on the scope of the policy, cover for reputational and PR issues may also be available. The duty to report is ongoing, so insurers should be kept up to date as a matter progresses or if the nature of an allegation changes. Higher education (HE) institutions should also consider whether an incident is sufficiently serious that it should be reported to regulators.
How can we help?
Our team of specialist HE lawyers have specific experience in drafting and reviewing policies and student codes of conduct, advising on harassment and equality issues as well as assault and compensation claims. We also support universities in investigating specific incidents, assisting the police and managing wider reputational issues.
If you would like more information please contact Tabitha Cave on 0117 314 5381