The University of Suffolk has released an updated version of their highly popular downloadable resource the Higher Education Online Safeguarding Self-review Tool to coincide with the Office for Students (OfS) marking a year since they published their Statement of Expectations to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct.
Funded by the OfS, the self-assessment Tool was originally created in 2019 by Professor Emma Bond, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Professor of Socio-Technical Research at the University of Suffolk and Professor Andy Phippen, Professor of Digital Rights at Bournemouth University and a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk.
It specifically focuses on tackling online sexual violence, hate crime and harassment and enables higher education providers to assess themselves to improve their online safeguarding practice.
The Tool has been revised in response to the wider awareness of harassment and abuse across the sector following the media coverage of the Everyone’s Invited website where more than 80 universities were mentioned by students giving specific examples of sexual harassment they had experienced at UK universities.
It is also in response to the 2021 publication of the OfS Statement of Expectations for preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct affecting students in higher education.
This second version reflects the very different HEI online environment post pandemic and has been updated to include guidance on two new aspects of safeguarding - online delivery and mental health and it comprehensively covers 25 aspects of online safeguarding important for HEIs to consider and grade themselves on four levels for each aspect.
Professor Emma Bond said: “While student safeguarding is a well-established responsibility for UK higher education institutions, thanks to the OfS Statement of Expectations, good practice in online safeguarding is finally becoming recognised across the sector.
“In spite of a duty of care accorded to UK universities to act reasonably in students’ best interests, to protect their well-being and to provide support as they continue in education, there remains a lack of guidance in relation to current practice and regulation around online safety within higher education.
“In response, our tool – developed by the University as part of the Office for Students Catalyst funded programme to support good practice in safeguarding students – focuses on tackling sexual violence, hate crime and online harassment, and is designed for higher education institutions to self-review their online safeguarding practice.”
This Tool is specifically intended to support universities in developing good practice to safeguard students online and to provide guidance for HEIs on how to assess current practice to inform how Higher Education Providers meet the OfS expectations to clearly communicate and embed across the whole organisation, their approach to preventing and responding to all forms of harassment and sexual misconduct affecting students.
Professor Andy Phippen said: “Whilst the OfS Statement of Expectations acknowledges that online is one of the ways in which abuse, harassment or sexual misconduct can occur, it is in our experience of working in the field of online safety for many years, a form of abuse that needs to be addressed specifically.
“Online abuse is different and should be acknowledged. It can have a far wider geographical reach, and can be delivered across multiple platforms and devices, and be delivered incessantly”.
Given that the pandemic saw the majority of student education and the associated higher education experience being online, there might expect an increased acknowledgment and recognition across the sector of the importance of addressing student welfare in the online environment.
However, there is still little guidance from regulatory bodies and HEI member organisations as to how institutions best respond to online harms and sadly, institutions hear of many commonplace and undisclosed incidents from students saying that their institution still fails to have both policy and practice in place to support them, proportionate and transparent sanctions for abusers and the means to provide education and training around acceptable and unacceptable online discourse.
University of Suffolk Press Office