Looking forward to the report from the Universities UK taskforce
Professor Nicole Westmarland
Director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse; Professor of Criminology in the School of Applied Sciences; Fellow of the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing
It is now a year since it was announced that Universities UK would be establishing a taskforce on the problem of sexual violence in higher education. At its first meeting it widened its remit to also include the (much) broader issue of hate crime affecting students, but promised to maintain a particular focus on violence against women and sexual harassment. The taskforce intended to consider the current evidence, any ongoing work, and what more needs to be done.
As we move towards the date that the report will be published (originally September 2016 – now ‘autumn’) it is worth reflecting on the importance of the work of this taskforce. I write this as a relative outsider to the process – I am not on the taskforce and have been on maternity leave for much of it so have not been able to attend any of their seminars or workshops. But I write as someone with a huge stake in the taskforce ‘getting this right’. As a Professor at Durham University who specialises in violence against women research, I feel a huge responsibility to ensure our students feel safe and free to have a fun and positive experience at university. I’ve been publicly critical of the defensive approach taken by some universities and their failures to treat survivors of sexual violence who speak out with the respect and care they deserve.
It was while listening to delegates from a range of universities attending an Epigeum event recently where I spoke about the online course I am lead advisor to (training staff to respond appropriately to disclosures of sexual violence) that I realised just how important it is that the Universities UK taskforce ‘gets this right’. So many universities are ready to act on the recommendations and are ready to put things in place to properly tackle sexual violence at university. But they often don’t have the necessary knowledge or experience to know where to start – especially in terms of what disciplinary options are available where students don’t want to make a police report but also on what to do while criminal justice system investigations are ongoing. The need for a clear framework for universities to develop their own approach came through clearly at the event.
Part of me feels concerned about whether the Universities UK report will be able to be clear enough given its broadened remit and the seemingly few meetings held (three, according to the website http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/Pages/taskforce-violence-against-women-hate-crime.aspx). But as a natural optimist, I will continue to look forward to the report and hope that real, bold actions will be taken by universities on the back of it. We owe it to our students to ensure their experience is a safe and positive one at university and that we are willing to take actions to protect and promote this.
Professor Nicole Westmarland is the Lead Advisor for Epigeum’s ‘Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence: Guidance for Staff’ collaboration. Find out how your institution can get involved here