Hold your horses – one policy change doesn’t mean we’ve won on sexual harassment

Jack May 7 August 2015

Over the past year Cambridge has reviewed its disciplinary procedures. It seems to have made them more student-friendly, and, in something of a shock move, has added harassment to the disciplinary regulations of the University.  This is the first time, at least in recent memory, that the University has publicly and actively done something, anything, about sexual violence. But it’s not time to put down the placards and petitions just yet.

We’re so desperate for any positive change around harassment that when anything new is announced we want to believe it’s progress. Often we want to believe so much that it obfuscates what difference has actually been made.

So what are the student disciplinary regulations? Until now, they’ve only existed to stop us committing plagiarism or occupying University property. You’re pretty unlikely to have come across them unless you’re really into reading the Statues and Ordinances of the University, or you’ve seen parts of them posted round lecture sites.

The University has said it “has revised its disciplinary code of conduct so that it encompasses harassment, including sexual assault. We worked closely with student representatives to produce a new set of guidelines and to signpost the support that already exists across the University and the colleges.” But what exactly does this mean?

The code of conduct now includes harassment, so far so hopefully good, but the second comment is more questionable – what support already exists? The support for student survivors is patchy and dependent on the goodwill of individuals or individual colleges at best, or non-existent at worse. And what are these ‘guidelines’? By guidelines, do they mean that harassment is now a disciplinary offence or do they mean they’ve actively added new procedures? I hope that this change does come with revised ways of using these regulations, whether by the student complaints procedure or through the Dignity@Study policy, but none of these have been announced yet.

The 1994 Zellick guidance, which concerned all “serious” crimes at universities, not just sexual harassment, stressed that all potential crimes should be dealt with by the police and not by Higher Education institutions. Since then, equality-related legislation has stressed the need for institutions to actively seek to protect their members from harassment including on the grounds of so-called ‘protected characteristics’ (gender, race, sexuality and so on). There’s a clear tension between these two legal concerns. Bringing harassment and assault into the remit of the University might make it clearer that the University can deal with harassment but it doesn’t mean it will, and it doesn’t mean the explicit or implicit pressure on student survivors to go to the police will not still be in play.

The police have a terrible track record with dealing with sexual violence. 26% of all sexual offences reported to the police are not even recorded as crimes. Many survivors experience hostility and disbelief, especially those who do not fit in with the image of someone who has experienced sexual violence, or those facing intersecting oppressions. Demanding that students report to the police before their place of study and often, their home, does anything to support them is unacceptable. Whether or not this change in regulations will stop this institutional failing remains unclear.

Throughout these changes, harassment seems to be understood as a problem between students. Of course, violence does come from within the student body, but to claim the response of the University to sexual violence should be only to regulate student behaviour, lets staff off the hook, and does nothing to change aspects of Cambridge’s culture that permit or encourage violence. Harassment and violence isn’t something that only happens between students, and when students or non-academic staff face harassment from academic staff getting support or accessing harassment policies can prove even more difficult.

So what’s changed? Now harassment is a disciplinary offence within the University, this could make it easier for students who’ve experienced harassment or violence and it certainly gives them a route for getting justice or adjustments. Crucially, this won’t replace existing college or faculty policies, although it might empower those seeking to use them.

None of this to say that something really important hasn’t just happened; this is the first public action from the University on sexual violence and that’s a big deal. Rather than pretending that there’s nothing wrong with existing survivor support we finally have a central University prepared to demonstrate that change is needed. But this change on its own is not enough.

Policy doesn’t make a culture. The best possible policy you could imagine doesn’t mean anything on its own. Without trained staff, properly funded and survivor-led support, alongside transparent and clear procedures easily found online, we might as well be in the same position as we were a couple of days ago. Whether or not Cambridge will give students this desperately-needed support remains to be seen. 



Read more:

News | Cambridge University changes tack on sexual assault guidelines