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I would be attending the UCL two day long online global conference called ‘Calling Time on Sexual Misconduct’, which aims to share the global best practice within Universities to prevent and address sexual misconduct. It is a very welcome initiative to get the conversation going in an area where different Universities have followed different models to institutionally remedy this wrong, some doing better than others, yet, overall wanting some big improvements. In light of this conference, and from the experience of my working with the team behind this conference as the Women’s Officer, from personal relations policy, to formal complaint procedures to active bystander training, in this article, I share my own perspective on UCL’s approach to tackling sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse.

#MeToo movement which made explicit the magnitude of sexual abuse in various industries/institutions including academia was a threshold moment for many such institutions around the world to at least begin to address this elephant in the room. The 1752 group has pushed the sector brilliantly on addressing some of the most burning challenges in this field in higher education.

Within academia, sexual harassment often comes tied up with other forms of bullying and misogyny in workplace, be it ‘little jokes’ on women and other genders, putting someone in an uncomfortable social or personal situation because of their sex or gender, belittling the contributions of authors because of their gender, undermining participation in group activities, to overt remarks about someone in a sexually suggestive manner or character assassination based on their personal/sexual life, and also the intersections with race and disability. Even though women and non-binary genders are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and harassment, any gender, including men, can be a victim of sexual harassment and abuse. It is concerning that in Universities, as in other spheres, there is a lack of narratives and hence, customized support for male survivors of sexual violence. There are wider social structural issues that systematically put women and non-binaries at the danger of being routinely mocked, undermined, and abused, as well as produce narratives that men are somehow weak or non-masculine if they face abuse. Without going into details on those, I’ll only discuss here the journey UCL has made to pitch itself as a model of good practice in tackling the menace of sexual misconduct, and the scope of doing even better from the perspective of a woman student and an elected student representative.

The term ‘sexual misconduct’ might have caught your eye. Sexual misconduct is the terminology used by the Universities to represent more holistically what sexual abuse, harassment and violence looks like in an academic workplace situation. It takes notice of the issues of unequal relationships and power hierarchy of staff/teachers/academics and students, consent, and the prevention of equal access to education, opportunities, and career progression.

Short version, UCL has come a long way, especially in last five years, but there remains much to do before we could thump up our chests in the joy of ‘getting it right’.

In the last two Universities UK (UUK) conferences I took part in, UCL’s model of addressing sexual misconduct at an institutional level has been widely commended and exemplified. Various Universities can be visualized as being located at different points of the continuum from absolutely horrific to the ideal most in addressing this rampant yet often sidelined issue. The institutional response to it is the response that is coded as policies and regulations. This serves as the mandate of what course the complaint and handling of it would take once an incident of sexual misconduct has surfaced. The most horrific then would be the University dismissing the allegation or refusing to take adequate steps for safeguarding the survivor, or worse still trying to defend the perpetrator(s), especially if they happen to be ‘celebrated’ in their field of work

Institutionally, UCL has taken some good steps in addressing the different facets of sexual harassment and abuse of power– more streamlined support and formal complaints procedure, a comprehensive online platform (Report and Support) where complaints can be made anonymously as well as seeking support, a new personal relationships policy discouraging relationships between staff and students, a suite of trainings aimed at staff and students around consent (co-led by Students Union and SSW), being an ally, active bystander (co-led by Students Union), and where to draw the line between harmless socialization and behaviour that constitutes misconduct. This feeds into the wider campaign UCL calls ‘Full-Stop Campaign’ to bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct which is actively championed by the Provost and his senior management team through Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) office.

Yet, everyone at UCL knows that UCL is a big, often dis-jointed machinery where ‘different parts’ sometimes behave independently of the institutional mandate. The execution of this revamped work remains patchy with some departments falling between the gaps while others excel. Then there are issues of biases and problems creeping in with the support offered before or during a complaint is made formal, be it informal mediation, or disclosures being judged. The rooted problem of prejudice against someone, let’s say women and non-binary genders to be specific, bringing in a complaint of being sexually harassed, abused or even bullied runs rampant at every institution, and in our personal lives. Somehow, someone will proclaim it as, ‘oh, it was just a joke’, ‘oh, but he/she’s not sexist/misogynist’, ‘oh, but you must have sent confusing hints to be sexually assaulted’, ‘oh, but were you drunk, and why did you then…’, to ‘oh, this was only supervisor-supervisee banter or a practical joke, harden up’, to ‘oh, why did you not report earlier’, and the list goes on.

The analysis of data generated from Report and Support so far points to a trend of an increased reporting of bullying, and by staff members in comparison to low reporting for sexual misconduct and/or by students. A lack of students using Report and Support points to both a distrust of the institution and the lack of students being actually aware of this platform. This is where a shift in the culture of the institution takes center-stage. Until we have a culture where survivors feel confident of being heard and taken seriously, provided support without any bias or stigma attached to sexuality, mental health, and race/gender/sexual orientation, and their complaints investigated and an outcome reached without implicit assumptions about relationships and behaviour, a University free of sexual misconduct is unlikely to be achieved. UCL has started taking some steps in this direction with dedicated personnel to evaluate a roadmap to build better behavioural and cultural shift in the ethos of the institution. But it is going to be a long road. To the students, real change occurs not when high level committees are set or reports produced, but when their complaints are addressed in a non-partisan manner, when they or their friends have received non-judgmental support, when UCL takes action when they raise the issue of a lecturer’s inappropriate comments, and when they feel confident enough to talk about these incidents without feeling that they have jeopardized their career progression and peace within University environment. An ideal achievement in short term, then, would be more students using Report and Support and cases going up, which means people are comfortable reporting these issues.

The full-stop campaign is a work in progress that has just begun. I am hopeful that with this global conference explicitly calling out sexual misconduct, this grave problem that keeps a significant section of student (and staff) population from reaching their potential and affects their well-being, would be actively discussed on inter-University platform. Every University can learn from each other, on what could be done and things they should never do when it comes to tackling the sexual misconduct. This is a conference that might initiate some promising developments in our sector and I would encourage all students and staff to attend this.