Emmanuel College instituted a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment last yearECSU

Universities UK, the organisation that represents British university leaders, have said that there is an “overwhelming need” for a review of the guidelines universities use for dealing with allegations of sexual assault on campus.

The chief executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, said that "the legal context" has changed significantly since the current guidelines were written in 1994, arguing that many universities were therefore failing to account for the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998. 

She went on to say that “universities have a clear duty of care when it comes to their students and we need to revisit the guidelines to make sure this duty is at the heart of them.”

This criticism comes from a taskforce that was called for by Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, in September 2015 "to help reduce violence against women and girls on university campuses." 

An overhaul of the guidelines could see other British universities follow Cambridge’s lead.

Last year, the university amended its discipline ordinances, adding a regulation forbidding harassment in any context relating the university.

The move followed significant pressure, including a survey conducted in April 2014 by Varsity and the CUSU Women’s Campaign, which revealed that 88 per cent of incidents of sexual assault went unreported. 

The then CUSU Women’s Officer, Amelia Horgan commented on the importance of the new regulation at the time.

Emphasising the need for a university-wide policy, she said: “Often when a student is harassed by a student from a different college there is little that can be done to support them.”

Cambridge's regulations mean that victims can report cases of alleged sexual harassment and engage the university’s disciplinary process, something which is not always possible in the guidelines followed by many British universities.

Last year, Louise Whitfield – a partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn, a law firm specialising in civil rights and judicial review – said that the so-called Zellick guidelines are “unlawful” and “fail to take into account the universities’ obligation to protect female students.”

These guidelines – so named because they were put forward in a report by Professor Graham Zellick – were published by the precursor to Universities UK, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, in 1994.

Among other points of contention, the Zellick report advises institutions not to take action until a case is reported to the police and the outcomes of a trial are known, saying: “Internal action for rape and sexual assault is out of the question, regardless of whether or not the victim has any intention of reporting to the police”.

On this point, Dandridge acknowledged the argument that “a blanket prohibition on investigating and invoking internal disciplinary procedures if an incident is not reported to police could amount to direct or indirect discrimination under the Equality Act.”

CUSU Women’s Officer, Charlotte Chorley welcomed the news, saying: "That the Zellick Report is finally being recognised as the outdated, problematic piece of literature that it is sends a promising and positive message.”

She also acknowledged the changes the university has already made, saying that the taskforce’s recommendations "are very much in line with discussions that have already occurred, and are occurring."

Instead Chorley pointed to Cambridge’s individual colleges as the real area for improvement on this issue: “With the collegiate nature of the university, sexual harassment policies are incredibly fragmented: some colleges have explicit policies, some have zero-tolerance statements, some have Dignity@Work.

“The university's harassment policy, which now covers sexual harassment, will hopefully provide some method of unification, and make it clearer who to report to if an incident occurs. It is designed to make the process as accessible as possible.”

Varsity has reached out to the university for comment on this matter.