The new harassment and sexual misconduct procedure was drawn up in collaboration with CUSU

In January, the University made a number of changes to its procedure for dealing with allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct between students, as well as cases involving both students and staff.

The reforms were drawn up in collaboration with CUSU and with the support of the General Board’s Education Committee, the Senior Tutors’ Committee, and the Committee on Student Health and Wellbeing. Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education Professor Graham Virgo praised the co-operation behind the reforms, saying that “in shaping the new centralised procedure, we have talked to students, and those affected by harassment or sexual misconduct, to gain their views on how the University and Colleges could best respond to these incidents…we’ve designed the procedure with student choice at its heart, so students can choose for their complaint to be heard in a way that suits them.”

The new procedure would allow the University to impose preliminary sanctions on students accused of harassment and sexual misconduct. It creates a formal process for investigating alleged incidents and finding a resolution through mediation or direct punishment.

One of the reforms was the creation of the central Office for Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA) in December, established to offer guidance on a range of student issues, and providing students with the option to submit formal harassment and sexual misconduct complaints involving other Cambridge students, and pertaining to members of staff.

The updated procedure is one of a number of ways in which the University and the Higher Education sector have responded to concerns about the prevalence of harassment and sexual misconduct on campus. In mid-March, it was also announced that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) would invest an extra £87,000 in prevention and support of students who have been affected over the next year.

However, as a result of the collegiate structure of the University, individual colleges also have their own procedures for dealing with allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct which are not supervised by the University. These vary significantly in scope and comprehensiveness.

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How does the new procedure work?

The OSCCA allows students to freely seek advice from “trained advisors” and, if they wish, to submit a complaint about harassment or sexual misconduct which will not appear on any student record and can be retracted at any time. Separate online reporting forms are available for allegations involving students and cases involving staff. An anonymous reporting platform also exists for third-parties to report incidents.

The OSCCA website states that the system is primarily intended for use in cases involving students from multiple colleges and in cases of sexual misconduct, and that in cases of alleged harassment involving students from the same college, the individual college’s autonomous protocol will likely be employed: “if your complaint relates to harassment you will normally be expected to use a College’s procedure”. Students will also be unable to use the University procedure if they have already lodged a complaint with a College procedure: “The University and College will not both investigate the same matter under the harassment and sexual misconduct procedures.” In some cases, therefore, students will not have access to the updated procedure.

There also appears to be some confusion in the University’s public explanations of the new policy. In an introductory video on the OSCCA website, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Graham Virgo states that an investigation “requires the consent of both parties, the party bringing the complaint, and the student against whom the complaint is being made”. A full document describing the policy elsewhere on the website, however, suggests that the consent of the accused party is not required for an investigation, and indeed “the investigator may still continue with the investigation in the absence of the Respondent’s cooperation.”

In a comment to Varsity, a spokesperson for OSCCA confirmed that “an investigation can take place with or without the agreement of the student who is the subject of the complaint”. This would not necessarily be immediately clear, however, to a student seeking to report sexual misconduct.

Concerns have also been raised about the procedure’s requirement that the consent of both parties, the accuser and the accused, must be given before a formal investigation can be instigated. Enquiries are undertaken by trained investigators, who are required to be objective and will, with consent, consult both parties and others if necessary. The investigator subsequently compiles a report, which does not make any findings or ascertain whether the harassment or sexual misconduct actually took place. A course of action will be recommended, and the report “can be considered by various officers in the university to determine what the most appropriate response might be”. However, the investigator is not authorised to enforce a course of action.

Both parties must also agree to the proposed resolution, options for which include “no further action”, mediation, conduct agreement, intermission or a behaviour awareness assessment. However, if the accused student does not agree to the suggested actions, or the accuser does not find the outcome befitting the situation, the case “could”, with the approval of the accuser, proceed to the University Discipline Procedure, where actions “can be imposed”.

The OSCCA also has a platform for students to report alleged cases of harassment and sexual misconduct involving members of staff. The body’s website states that unless a complaint is “frivolous or vexatious”, students will never be put at a disadvantage for filing a complaint. Even if an allegation is dismissed or disproven, the University will “ensure that you will not be assessed or taught in a small group with that member of staff.”

But the system may deprive the student involved of information about the processing of their allegation. According to the guidelines, staff discipline processes will be imposed “depending on the nature of the complaint” and the staff member’s “right to confidentiality” will be prioritised.

HEFCE Funding

The University is also set to increase funding for its efforts to tackle the causes of harassment and sexual misconduct. In mid-March, it was announced that HEFCE would invest an extra £87,000 in prevention and support over the next year, including initiatives such as online consent training, ‘the Intervention Initiative’ bystander program, the ‘Good Lad’ campaign in sports clubs and the training of key University and college staff by Cambridge Rape Crisis.

The plan was developed with input from Cambridge Rape Crisis, Cambridgeshire Police, Cambridgeshire Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Partnership, Cambridge University Students’ Union, the Good Lad initiative and the student-led social action society Cambridge Hub

Interview with Natalie Greenfield 

The recent Cambridge graduate, and Huffington Post writer, talks about her personal experience in dealing with harassment at the university and how it encouraged her to write about consent.

Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

“The UK never caught on to Title IX”, Nathalie tells me. The OSCCA’s focus on recommendation rather than enforcement is, in her eyes, “always going to be the case in the UK higher education system, because I’m not sure that it is or ever wants to be equipped to deal with, from my experience, allegations of a criminal nature – that’s not their job, that’s not what they’re there for.

“But, if you’re looking out for the welfare of a body of young people, then there are things which do fall within your remit.”

It is for this reason that OSCCA is, in Nathalie’s eyes, “a preventative measure at best”.

Speaking of her own experiences, she said “he was convinced that I had the wrong idea, that I’d made it up”.

Nathalie sees promise in new training programs for key staff. “If they have no idea how to respond, and if their first reaction is ‘How much did you drink?’ and ‘What were you wearing?’, you may as well be speaking to no-one.”

She is also reassured by the treatment of issues at a University rather than college level, but questions why OSCCA still recommends going to one’s college first: “It’s illogical, and completely counter to the idea of having a University-wide policy that everyone can rely on and draw upon. Colleges each have their own policy, or lack thereof. It’s quite disconcerting.”

While she sees the office’s establishment as “encouraging”, it remains to be seen how things will work in practice, and how students will consult and inform themselves with the new policy. “Implementing it and making sure things are used properly is a whole different kettle of fish. But not having anything written down in the first place, not even having a stance on something, is unacceptable.

“The introduction of something, anything, is definitely reassuring.”