Stamping out sexual harassment and 'lad culture'

Posted by Professor David Richardson On 16 December 2015

Increasing anxiety by students about harassment on university campuses, and in particular sexual harassment, concerns me greatly. Experiencing a safe, harassment-free campus within a safe, harassment-free city should be the right of every one of our students and staff.

So I have been keen to work with UEA’s students on this: to help to highlight these issues; to engender culture change that will stamp out harassment; and to ensure that where harassment does take place, the victim can report the incident with the confidence that it will be handled sensitively and the perpetrator dealt with appropriately.

I readily agreed to appear in a Student Union video in support of the ‘Never OK’ campaign. And I also made a pledge to eradicate sexual harassment from our campus at a meeting of the UEA Student Union Council in April this year.

The problem, though, is how to eradicate it. Culture change is required and this will be aided by the exchange of ideas on approaches to engendering culture change across and beyond our sector. I was therefore pleased when the Universities UK taskforce on ‘Harassment on Campus’ was announced in September and was delighted to be asked to join it. This in turn led me to join the excellent discussion organised on sexual harassment and lad culture by the APPUG in the Houses of Parliament earlier this month.

The UUK taskforce will need to consider both ‘prevention’ and ‘support’. The ideal would obviously be to prevent all harassment - to change the culture so that it is removed as an issue from our campuses. But culture change takes time, and harassment is an issue now.

So we must also have effective reporting, support and disciplinary systems for when incidents do take place. Good practice in this area should be identified and shared across the sector. A high-profile awareness-raising campaign led by the UEA Students’ Union this year is encouraging more students to report incidents and seek support. I see more reporting as a good and necessary thing. I do not want to hide the issue. I want to expose it, face it head on, and eradicate it.

UEA’s policy on harassment has been recently reviewed - with the involvement of our Student Union – and this has resulted in more detailed information on sexual harassment being incorporated into the guidance. However, I am sure, and indeed our students advise me, that there is more we can do to improve the effectiveness and visibility of our procedures.

Like many VCs, I would welcome guidance from the sector, and this is an area where the taskforce will prove invaluable. This is a serious issue, which students and staff feel strongly about. So the challenges must – and will – be overcome, in a spirit of partnership and collaboration.

There is also a growing swell of opinion that we should  work together to revisit the 1994 Zellick report on student disciplinary procedures in the light of the changes our sector has undergone in the last 20 years and the introduction of new legislation such as the Equality Act and Human Rights Act.

While much of the focus on sexual harassment is given to our campuses, our universities are integral parts of our cities. Of UEA’s 15,000 students, 10,000 live in the city of Norwich. A university city must therefore also look to its own culture. And universities must work with partners in the community to promote culture change - together.

This should include partner universities and colleges, schools, local authorities and local businesses, particularly bar and club owners, as well as the police. We need initiatives such as UEA Student Union’s ‘Good Night Out’ campaign to be rolled out more widely.

The starting point must be a clear understanding that every student has the right to have a ‘good night out’ without experiencing sexual harassment. So as part of the campaign bar and security staff, both on campus and in the city, have received training on dealing with incidents of sexual harassment. These incidents can range from groping, grabbing, sexually aggressive behaviour, stalking, humiliating conduct, homophobia or transphobia. Bar and security staff are often the first port of call for students when incidents happen.

While we face steep challenges ahead, I am convinced that we can overcome them – if we work together. And I will be able to keep my pledge to UEA students to eradicate sexual harassment from our campus.

Professor David Richardson is Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia