My colleagues have given a very useful summary of certain aspects of the new OfS regime and the impact on Universities here. I would like to explore a hugely topical and concerning issue for universities which is not currently regulated by the OfS: safeguarding and student welfare.
Safeguarding comes in various guises with the better known, and relatively highly regulated, aspects relating to under 18s and adults at risk. Universities are regulated already in this area and compliance is measured by Ofsted, by the Charity Commission and by local authorities themselves. Universities should already be taking their responsibilities towards these groups seriously and this is something I have written about in the past here.
What about the wider issue of student welfare? We have seen a devastating increase in student suicides, campaigns for stronger and more consistent controls on staff/student relationships as well as media coverage of incidents of sexual harassment between students (peer on peer abuse). University response to these issues varies hugely even within one institution and this uncertain and inconsistent environment is already causing real harm to students and risks the reputation of individual universities and the whole university system.
One point which always strikes me when speaking to the sector on student welfare and safeguarding is the disparate ownership of this issue. Universities are generally full of good people trying to do good but who that is, how joined up the action is and how seriously it is taken varies hugely. I have spoken to people in HR, in student welfare, in student services, in central management, in senior management and in specific childcare roles who are all taking extremely seriously the issue of student well being, staff/student relationships and peer-on-peer abuse and are trying to do something about it at their institution. But these people are not always speaking to each other nor are they always adequately supported by their university’s systems and processes.
Universities UK, as part of its “Changing the Culture” report, published a series of case studies on good practice in different universities and its recent “One Year On” report, UUK recognises this variable progress. Another excellent recent UUK report “Minding our future” sets out clearly why student wellbeing and mental health is an issue that matters.
UUK “One Year On” highlights the need for cultural change starting right at the very top of the university; where senior leaders engage properly with this issue, real progress and change can and does happen. There are a number of practical recommendations with which I whole heartedly agree. The basic ingredients are summarised as follows:
- Senior Leadership role affording priority status to safeguarding and adequate resourcing.
- The importance of a holistic institution-wide approach.
- Effective prevention strategies within universities.
- Effective response strategies within universities.
- Sharing and learning from good practice from UUK and other bodies.
- Research and Guidance from UUK and other bodies.
UUK provide more details in their report which I would urge all senior leaders, and those with an interest in student welfare, to read. Taking action on these areas would protect students and all staff in a university. It mirrors so much of the advice which we in the Farrers Safeguarding Unit provide to other sectors and where huge strides in good practice and safer organisations have been made. My view is that the university sector can learn a huge amount from other sectors.
Crucially, however, in those other sectors there is a regulator which is driving forward the change and ensuring consistency of practice. Similarly in the commercial world, for example, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Solicitors Regulation Authority have taken steps to ensure compliance from its members on sexual harassment in the workplace. Consistency and real change can only happen if there is some external driver ensuring sector commitment and consistency of action.
The Universities Minister’s recent announcement on a proposed “opt in” for students to name a nominated family member or friend as a contact point in case of serious mental health problems, while voluntary, increases the pressure on universities to address this issue.
I know that calling for greater regulation in universities is not going to be the most popular of ideas and OfS itself is still bedding down and no doubt very busy with its existing regulatory role. Perhaps UUK’s rallying cry to universities via Changing the Culture will create change and progress within each institution so that regulation is not required.
Students may well now be treated as consumers but they cannot flourish in an environment which does not take their wellbeing seriously. The OfS owes it to students to remember that they are still human beings living and learning in a real-world environment and not just abstract consumers of education services.
If you require further information on anything covered in this briefing please contact Kathleen Heycock +44(0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, July 2017