Changing the Culture in Scottish higher education: Two years on

Universities strive to be inclusive, safe and respectful places for their students and staff. Sadly, that is not currently the experience of everyone studying or working in higher education. That is a situation that universities want to address. In 2016, Universities UK’s Changing the Culture was a major step forward in the sector’s collaborative approach to tackling gender based violence, hate incidents and harassment. Just over two years on from that report, every UK university has been asked to report on their progress. Changing the Culture in Scottish higher education: Two years on is a summary of the findings from universities in Scotland.

It is helpful that we are able to publish this data in the second half of 2019, as it comes a little over a year on from the launch of the Equally Safe Toolkit for Higher Education which aims to support universities with a strategic approach to the prevention of gender based violence (GBV). Whilst the Toolkit’s publication did not signal the start of prevention work in Scottish higher education, it has been a further stimulus and has supported more collaboration within the sector. Whilst there is still more to do, universities are focused on tackling it. The results of the survey indicate there is a lot of activity underway in institutions and a rapid pace of change.

The Scottish context

The context in which Scotland works to tackle some of the issues covered by the survey is diverging from other parts of the UK in terms of policy, funding and legislation. This is perhaps most notable in regards to issues of gender based violence. The survey from which these data are drawn was shaped and led by Universities UK and some questions reflect the English policy and funding context and terms used in England rather than Scotland. As an example, Universities UK’s work, and the survey questions, tend to focus in on ‘sexual misconduct’ rather than ‘gender based violence’ which is the term widely used by universities and policy makers in Scotland.

Universities Scotland is leading a review of the Universities UK, Pinsent Mason Student Misconduct Guidelines throughout 2019/20. The review’s scope will cover student behaviour that constitutes gender based violence, hate incidents and harassment. It will draw on many of UUK’s recommendations, arising from the survey findings, to inform its work.

Summary of progress

Changing the Culture (2016) set out a range of recommendations for universities to support their prevention and response to gender based violence, hate incidents and harassment. A set of 19 recommendations fell into four broad pillars shown below. The four main pillars were:

  1. The key role to be taken by the senior leadership team within higher education institutions
  2.  The criticality of a holistic institution-wide approac
  3. Development of effective preventative strategies
  4. Development of effective responsive strategies

The survey questions and the data reported on here follow the structure provided by the four pillars above.

  • 77% of institutions said that they had secured buy-in from the senior management team to take forward recommendations in Changing the Culture.
  • 100% of institutions said they were embedding changes into governance systems, policies & procedures.
  • 92% of universities were ensuring working groups and projects are embedded within reporting & governance systems.
  • 77% of institutions said they were regularly review progress on this agenda.

An area for further improvement:

  • 54% said that they had updated the governing body or Court on progress to address harassment, hate incidents and gender based violence. This is addressed in the recommendations.
  • 92% of Scottish respondents said that their institution had taken an institution-wide approach to achieve culture change.
  • 85% of Scotland’s universities said they had formed an interdisciplinary team or project within the institution to respond to the recommendations in Changing the Culture.
  • 92% of institutions said that students and staff have been at the centre of their inclusive approach to taking forward Changing the Culture.
  • 85% of institutions said they had engaged the support of third sector and/or local specialist agencies such as rape crisis as part of their approach.

An area for further improvement:

  • 31% of responding institutions said they had involved reporting students in developing strategies. This is addressed in the recommendations.

Universities have taken a number of preventative measures including:

  • 77% have engaged with other providers/local organisations to get a joined-up approach.
  • 69% have updated discipline procedures.
  • 69% have run student content training.
  • 62% have run student bystander training.
  • 54% have taken action relating to the student code of conduct.

An area for further improvement:

  • 54% of respondents have adopted a zero tolerance culture across institutional activities.

Universities have put a number of response strategies and tools in place to support students and staff:

  • 77% of institutions said they had published clear information for students on how to report.
  • 69% had developed new or improved reporting mechanisms.
  • 69% had developed or improved online resources or tools.
  • 69% had put training in place for staff.
  • 69% had built partnerships with local specialist services to enhance referral pathways for students.

Areas for further improvement:

  • Only 23% of institutions currently said they have centralised reporting systems in place, though 30% were actively considering or developing such a system.
  • 69% of institutions identified the sustainability of rolling out training to students and staff as the single biggest obstacle to enhancing progress with Changing the Culture..

Key Points:

  • Universities’ approach to tackling all forms of harassment has been very open and inclusive of students, staff and third sector and local organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland.
  • 92% of responding institutions in Scotland said they have taken a whole-institution response to tackle gender based violence, hate incidents and harassment.
  • 100% of responding institutions said change would be embedded in governance structures and policies and procedures.
  • Significant progress has been made in the mechanisms available to support students to report incidents.
  • 77% of responding institutions have published clear information on how to report and 69% have new or improved reporting mechanisms.
  • 62% of responding institutions have put additional support in place for reporting students.

Further Reading


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