Statement from USVreact and CHUCL on Universities UK task force report

We welcome the release of the Universities UK report today on violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. It is crucial that leading bodies in the sector put pressure on universities to take action on these issues, so the report performs an important intervention. We are glad to see the update to the Zellick guidelines on dealing with incidents which may constitute a criminal offence: particularly the focus on the university’s duty of care to all students, and protective measures which can be put in place while an investigation takes place. We also appreciate the hard work and expertise contributed to the process by all members of the task force.

Amongst its key recommendations, the report advises that all universities take up a form of bystander intervention. While we agree that bystander approaches are valuable, we are concerned about the lack of intersectionality in the bystander model. Bystander intervention is not sensitive to diverse student demographics: are all students equally positioned to act as (and be seen as) helpful bystanders? When we consider the ways in which class and race figure in definitions of potential perpetrators and ‘ideal victims’, we think probably not. We also have concerns about the dominant focus on not breaking the law and what constitutes criminal acts. There is an implicit assumption here that the law is equivalent to justice. This is despite a body of feminist work that illustrates the ways in which criminal justice systems re-victimise survivors and perpetuate forms of state violence through punishment which again, are structured by class and race.

Our projects aim to influence institutional cultures through education and skills development. We do not subscribe to the disciplinary/punitive approach. We are concerned with changing perceptions of sexual violence and fostering empathy to create safe and supportive communities. We work with whole-institution frameworks for creating cultural change: these are recommended in the UUK report, but there needs to be a more practical focus on how to develop and implement them.

USVReact (Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence) advocates disclosure training for staff vertically (top to bottom of the institutions) as well as horizontally in order to achieve broad influence. In educating staff about the reasons why survivors might not come forward, we are aiming to influence institutional cultures to be more supportive of survivors of violence. We approach this work recognising that inappropriate responses to disclosure can be re-traumatising/victimising for survivors and that this requires staff to have sufficient knowledge about violence as a gendered and intersectional phenomenon. We are also concerned to prioritise the autonomy and choice of the survivor in relation to whether they decide to escalate a complaint.

CHUCL (Changing University Cultures) uses a capacity-building framework (SHAPE) as an antidote to neoliberal values, fostering self-awareness, honesty, altruism, political consciousness and empathy. We use techniques of Grounded Action Inquiry to generate cultural change initiatives from the whole university community, via an inclusive and dialogic progress. In our work with universities, we hope to create a cohort of ‘change agents’ across the HE sector who are working towards cultural change in meaningful and sustainable ways. This is not a goal which can be achieved through setting targets, measuring indicators, creating policies and implementing top-down training programmes. It is certainly not a goal which can be achieved through discipline and punishment.

University actions to address sexual harassment and violence should build on the existing body of feminist research and good practice. Studies have shown the inextricable links between gender and violence and have highlighted the cultural, social, and structural factors which enable harassment and violence to thrive. If we do not employ these analyses, we are left with reactive models that emphasise punishment for individuals who commit offences. Using a gendered and intersectional lens would facilitate the development of preventative models for whole-institution action. We realise it is easy to critique policy and initiatives from the sidelines: with this in mind, we would be delighted to work collaboratively and constructively with institutions and individuals who are interested in our research and/or our perspectives.

For more information about USVReact visit http://usvreact.eu/

For more information about CHUCL visit https://chucl.com/

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