OfS touts tough registration rules on sexual harassment

HE regulator plans to consult on a new condition of registration early next year

HE regulator plans to consult on a new condition of registration early next year

Universities and colleges are set to face stricter registration requirements by the higher education regulator, in a bid to tackle sexual harassment and misconduct.

The Office for Students (OfS) plans to consult on a new condition of registration early next year, which means it could be in place before the start of the next academic year. 

Colleges and universities risk losing their registration with the OfS if they fail to meet the new requirement.

The requirement is set to be introduced after an evaluation of the OfS ‘statement of expectations’ found that there were serious shortfalls in how colleges and universities were tackling sexual violence.

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, told MPs on the women and equalities committee this week: “We’re working on a condition of registration that we would consult on early in the new year and that would put, subject to the consultation, this area of work [sexual harassment and misconduct] onto a sharper regulatory footing. It would put in place mandatory requirements, and it would allow us to intervene when we saw concerns.”

In April last year, the OfS published seven “expectations” which set out how universities and colleges should prevent and respond to incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct, after 50,000 accounts of sexual violence were published on the website Everyone’s Invited.

The statement of expectations provided recommendations for the systems, policies, and practices that institutions need to have in place to prevent and effectively respond to harassment and sexual misconduct.

Earlier this year, OfS commissioned an independent evaluation to look at the actions universities and colleges had taken to comply with their statement of expectations. The evaluation, set to be released next month, is expected to show that universities and colleges have taken some steps, such as making it easier for incidents to be reported.

“Patchy and too slow”

But the evidence from students – given as part of the evaluation – suggests that progress has been inconsistent and too slow. Many students don’t know what to do if this happens to them or have a poor experience when they report an incident of harassment.

Lapworth said: “[Students] said there has been progress, but it’s been patchy, and it is too slow. So we’re not seeing the impact that we would have expected. We signalled to universities and colleges that if that didn’t do the trick and drive the process then we would impose a condition of registration.”

Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said this is the “right thing for OfS to do”. He told FE Week, however, that there are “complications, because college safeguarding procedures are already regulated by DfE, and Ofsted”. 

Gravatt added: “We look forward to discussing the details with all three organisations to ensure the rules work for students and staff in our part of the HE sectors.”

Intervention

A new pilot prevalence survey was also announced by the OfS this week, which will collect data on sexual violence in higher education settings, and is set to run within the same timeframe as the registration condition consultation.

Lapworth could not say how much the new prevalence survey would cost but confirmed the importance of “conducting a carefully constructed sampling approach across the sector” to determine which sort of students are experiencing sexual violence so they can intervene when they need to.

Drawing on evidence from surveys from the National Union of Students’, Revolt Sexual Assault and Everyone’s Invited, Lapworth corroborated that students with particular characteristics, particularly disabled women and minority ethnic groups, are impacted more by sexual violence.

When asked whether bystander training will make up part of the new requirement, Lapworth confirmed that the OfS’ focus will be on credible, evaluated training.

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