OfS Consults to Regulate Sexual Misconduct in HE — How to Prepare
Hannah West
Research Lead
In this article;

On the 24th of February, the Office for Students (OfS) released a consultation outlining substantial new requirements for Higher Education providers around sexual harassment and misconduct (SH&M). The consultation proposes a new approach to how Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) regulate harassment and sexual misconduct concerning students.

Those who are advocating for much-needed improvements in this area unanimously agree that the proposals are long overdue, but HEIs will be able to share their thoughts on the proposed requirements until the 4th of May, alongside students and organisations working on prevention and support. 

Things are moving quickly though, and the OfS is widely tipped to bring in many of the requirements proposed, with a target effective date of September 2023.

The New Registration Conditions 

The OfS is planning to bring in a substantial new condition of registration, which would require providers to address harassment and sexual misconduct in six key ways:

  1. Establishing clear definitions of harassment and sexual misconduct to ensure consistency across the sector.
  2. Requiring each provider to develop and publish a single policy document outlining their plan to prevent harassment and sexual misconduct. This document should also include arrangements for managing incidents, the support offered to both the accused and the accuser, and training for staff and students on how to handle disclosures, formal reports, and investigations.
  3. Mandating that each registered university and college has the capacity and resources to deliver everything required by the proposed condition.
  4. Ensuring that universities and colleges continue to meet their legal and regulatory obligations in relation to both freedom of speech and harassment to protect academic freedom.
  5. Prohibiting the use of non-disclosure agreements that prevent students from discussing incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct they may have encountered.
  6. Imposing regulatory requirements on universities and colleges concerning personal relationships between students and relevant staff involved in teaching, marking, or other activities.

Focussing in on the student training requirements

There have been significant advancements proposed in the areas of reporting, investigations, and disciplinary procedures, but when it comes to fulfilling the requirements around student training, many of the universities we’re speaking to are nervous about the challenges that lie ahead.

The proposal states a range of requirements that HEIs should adhere to be compliant with the student SH&M training guidelines, broken down into the following key parts:

  • Ensure students understand the content of the single policy document that explains and outlines the provider’s approach to tackling SH&M.
  • Deliver effective and credible mandatory training for all students, including training for potential witnesses, also known as ‘bystander training’.
  • Ensure training provided is evaluated to evidence efficacy and demonstrate measurable changes in behaviours within the institution as a direct result of the training.
  • An opportunity for attendees to ask questions and engage in a discussion about the content of the training, given the complexity of the issues dealt with.
  • Training must be designed and delivered by persons with credible and demonstrable expertise.

The challenge

The OfS has been clear to highlight that providers must have sufficient capacity and resources (on an ongoing basis) to meet the requirements set out in the proposed condition. Given that many institutions already struggle to engage students on non-credit-bearing topics, the requirements pose a huge task for HEIs across the board. 

But it’s not just the sheer volume of students to train that is likely to be the biggest problem. The complexity of the requirements posed will be the real challenge, even if they have the overwhelming support of those tasked with implementing them. 

And then, of course, there’s the cost — a conservative estimate to roll out in-person third-party training would run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. In rosier economic times, this may not have been such a problem, but given the myriad of requirements providers will be expected to deliver on, it’s unlikely that incumbent providers have the digital expertise to have the impact at scale the OfS is rightly pushing for.

GoodCourse x Portsmouth University: working together to create safer campuses

Over the past few years, GoodCourse has been working across the HE sector to usher in a new way to engage students with training content. One that works for the distraction-rich world they live in, one that doesn’t require them to remember logins or download apps, and one that looks and feels like the social media applications used ubiquitously by students today.

But unlocking the key to student engagement is only half the battle. GoodCourse has partnered with academics at institutions like The University of Nottingham and Warwick University to embed the leading research on sexual harassment and misconduct into all training courses.

The team at Portsmouth know only too well that today's students have high expectations: engaging, relatable, impactful content - accessible on their phones on the go. Working together with GoodCourse, Portsmouth were able to rapidly tailor expert-made content, deliver to students via SMS & email (no apps, no logins), and track engagement & learning outcomes automatically.

“We seek to take a whole-institution approach to student well-being and to embed this both in our curriculum and our support for students before and during their time with us, as captured in our Being, Belonging, Becoming approach. 

Therefore we decided to use GoodCourse to support our 2022/2023 intake of students to become good university citizens and to be both well-prepared and informed before they arrived and in the early part of their student journey with us.” Dr Harriet Dunbar Morris, Dean of Learning and Teaching; Reader in Higher Education.

12x increase on traditional training modalities

Following a rollout of both Consent and Active Bystander training for Portsmouth’s Jan ‘23 student intake by different delivery mechanisms, >70% of students who received the course by SMS completed their assigned training within a week. Representing a 12-fold increase compared to conventional training methods. 

How to feedback on the proposals

There will undoubtedly be implementation challenges for HEIs, but there is widespread agreement that the OfS recommendations represent both a significant and well-needed introduction of legislation to sexual harassment and misconduct prevention on campus. 

The OfS held two consultation webinars in March 2023, one for higher education providers on Tuesday 7th of March and one for students and their representatives on Thursday 9th of March, and any feedback on the proposals must be submitted before the 4th of May 2023 via this link.

The team at GoodCourse will also be working closely with providers to ensure we will be able to offer a robust and comprehensive training solution, fit for the needs of students and providers today. 

To learn more, just click the banner below to speak to a member of our HEI specialists.

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