Written by Sarah Coburn-Crane

Sexual misconduct in HE: building a national picture

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The disproportionate incidence of sexual misconduct in Higher Education (HE) is a troubling yet well-documented reality.

“For the year ending March 2022, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) showed that, of adults aged 16 years and over, those who were full-time students were more than four times as likely to have experienced sexual assault within the last year than those with any other occupation type.”

Despite this, a sector-level measure of prevalence remains underdeveloped – something the Office for Students (OfS) is working hard to address. In our latest blog we share an overview of the pilot they’ve commissioned us to deliver in this context. You can also find out more about the OfS and their work in this space here.

The prevalence pilot

The first of its kind, the prevalence pilot was borne out of an independent review of OfS’s statement of expectations. A sector-defining piece of research, it will provide a much needed understanding of “the rates and context of incidents [of sexual misconduct within HE], areas of under-reporting and other gaps”. It will also give participating providers an overview of student engagement and awareness with their existing policies and practices.

The survey questions are currently in development, with a discrete cognitive testing phase taking place over the coming weeks. For the pilot itself, we’ll use our sector-level expertise to consider:

  • The best means of working with providers to collate relevant contact information
  • Different contact strategies e.g., the timing of email communications, the use of SMS etc
  • Different awareness raising activities (and associated levels of response)
  • Communicating response rates with participating institutions
  • Safeguarding student wellbeing

We’ll also advise on questionnaire design and provide a written report of the operational findings.

Our expertise

While many may know us for our work on large flagship surveys such as Graduate Outcomes – work we’re extremely proud of – our methodological and subject-specific experience extends far beyond this.

We recently piloted a Sexual Harassment Survey on behalf of the Government Equalities Office, for example.. This too was the first nationally representative survey of its kind looking at the best means of gathering regular data on the prevalence of sexual harassment. We achieved over 12,000 online responses, with large enough base sizes within key demographics to enable meaningful analysis in each. Preparatory work included a literature review of over 100 unique sources, a cognitive testing phase and an extensive pre-pilot.

“72% of the UK population experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in their lifetime, 43% in the last 12 months.

80% of those with a place of work or study thought it had a clear policy on sexual harassment and 51% thought said place of work/study was tackling sexual harassment well or very well.

Certain demographic groups were reportedly more at risk: women, young people (ages 15-24 and 25 to 34), ethnic minorities (excluding White minorities), LGB individuals, and those with disabilities.”

We also helped the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigate racial harassment in HE between 2018 and 2019. This qualitative and quantitative research looked at the handling of specific complaints as well as the development of practices and procedures around facilitating and dealing with complaints. The quantitative element included both a survey of HE providers (which obtained a 90% response rate) and an online survey of over 1,000 students. The qualitative strand included 30 depth interviews with respondents in HE providers across England, Scotland and Wales.

This research formed part of a EHRC wider inquiry into racial harassment in publicly funded universities in the UK. From this, EHRC devised a range of evidence-based recommendations. These included suggestions for regulators, funding councils and organisations such as UUK to set out their expectation that racial harassment in HE is treated as a priority. The report also encouraged HE providers to “ensure effective data collection procedures are in place to enable them to develop a baseline in order to evaluate and improve their prevention and response strategies.”

We’re also currently supporting the Government of Jersey addressing violence against Women and Girls. This online survey of the general public and analysis of testimonial responses, is aimed at establishing the range and types of violence experienced by women and girls in Jersey as well as understanding prevalence, frequency, patterns and consequences.

More generally we conduct research in a range of other sensitive areas, such as an online and telephone survey for CPS with victims and witnesses of crime, an exploration of pregnancy and maternity discrimination for EHRC and an assessment of the Dublin III Regulations, which explored outcomes secured for unaccompanied children seeking Asylum in the UK. Research activities here included interviews with young people with direct experience of the legislation.

If you’d like to know more about our research into these sorts of areas, or discuss your insight needs more generally, do get in touch with our Higher Education team on highereducation@iffresearch.com, who’d be happy to help.