Our Registrar, Bryn Morris, tells us more about the work the University is doing to ensure we all feel safe in our community.

There have been a number of complaints about the University’s handling of sexual assault cases by our students, as well as BBC coverage about an issue that is of vital importance to us all: ensuring we all feel safe, that our community is an inclusive and welcoming environment; and that we have a zero tolerance approach to all forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence. I want to provide an update on progress that we have made in addressing these issues and to set out where we have more work to do.

All cases that have been reported to us have been investigated and every effort has been made to support those involved. We have reviewed the cases highlighted by the BBC and have provided face-to-face advice and support to the students involved, including giving them information about reporting the incidents to the police. We have followed up with each student and carried out full investigations through our Student Conduct Office, based on our Code of Student Conduct.

I recognise that our procedures are overly complicated and bureaucratic; the time we have taken to resolve some of these cases has left students in a very difficult position and created uncertainty for them. We know we need to do more to keep complainants up-to-date on our investigations. I apologise for this and I recognise that we must do better. Five specific issues have been raised:

Why have investigations taken so long?

Some of the cases in question are incredibly complex and our commitment to a thorough investigation of all the available evidence may have contributed to perceived delays. Our goal is to conclude every complaint within 60 calendar days, as recommended by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. In 2017-18 80% of complaints were resolved within this timeframe. Cases can sometimes be delayed due to ongoing police investigations, intermitting students or difficulty in reaching witnesses outside of term time. Whatever the reason, it is not acceptable that 20% of cases are not concluded within 60 days. We need to review how we further speed up the resolution of complaints and we will do so.

Why hasn’t the University encouraged students to report cases to the police?

Where students might have been subject to a crime, we want them to report incidents to the police. This is integral to our student support and student conduct protocols. We will review how advice is provided to students at every stage of our support and student conduct processes to ensure that students feel encouraged and supported in raising matters with the police. I want to encourage all students to report an incident. We have a number of routes for reporting:

What are you doing about the delays in dealing with complaints?

Our aim is to make it as straightforward as possible for members of our community to report unacceptable behaviour, including historical incidents. The introduction of the new Report and Support system, developed jointly with our Students’ Union has corresponded with an increase in the number of student conduct complaints requiring investigation. We have already allocated extra resource to enable the appointment of an Assistant Proctor for the start of the next academic year, which will speed up the handling of complaints. If we need to invest more to ensure timely handling of complaints, we will do so.

Why aren’t students being investigated or found guilty of sexual violence excluded from the University?

All conduct cases are investigated thoroughly and impartially, either immediately or once any police investigations have been concluded. When an investigation identifies that there is a case to answer, serious cases are referred to a Student Conduct Committee comprising two members of academic staff and a student member, specially trained to undertake these roles. The Committee decides whether the complaint is justified and if it is, what penalty should be imposed. This can and does include expulsion but other sanctions may be imposed by the Committee. In agreeing our new Code of Student Conduct, we will ensure that we provide greater clarity and transparency on the range of penalties that can apply in all types of conduct cases, including the most serious.

Is the University protecting its reputation rather than protecting students?

All conduct cases are investigated impartially and thoroughly with judgements reached based solely on the evidence available. The University does not interfere in the progress of conduct cases or in their outcome. Our current approach to handling complaints isn’t meeting the needs of our students and we will review this, ensuring students play a key role in the process. We will also draw on external advice to make sure we get things right in future. This open blog is part of a set of actions to acknowledge publicly that we need to do better.

Next Steps

  • We will introduce a new Code of Student Conduct prior to the start of autumn term 2019.
  • We will integrate feedback from students, the SU and the Women’s Officer in the SU, in the design of this system, to ensure it works for students and is easier to understand.
  • We will draw on independent external advice, to ensure we are creating a fair and transparent process, which supports students who make complaints.

Our goal is to ensure the University of Essex is an inclusive and welcoming environment and that we have zero tolerance to all forms of sexual harassment and violence. We have more work to do and I will keep you updated on a regular basis.

Bryn Morris

Registrar & Secretary