In May 2021, our Senate and Council agreed 16 actions to address the issues that emerged from a review, commissioned by the Vice-Chancellor and undertaken by an independent barrister, Akua Reindorf, of two events at the University. This blog shares the progress made following up these actions.

Although most of the actions agreed by Senate and Council have been completed, our work does not end here. As part of the implementation process, we have renewed our commitment to promoting academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law, central to creating an environment where we can all learn, grow and develop through challenge. As a community, this means that we may encounter ideas or arguments which some may experience as objectionable or offensive, with a line being drawn at conduct which is unlawful or contrary to the University’s policies. New legislation on freedom of speech and academic freedom is currently being reviewed in the Houses of Parliament and we are keeping a close eye on any additional steps that may be required to ensure our policies and practices align with our obligations, as well as promoting our commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law. 

Some of the actions that have been completed have related to policy and governance work. These have included reviewing and revising our Speaker Code of Practice and its associated processes, reviewing our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy documents and our Royal Charter, and reviewing and republishing our guidance on Supporting Trans and Non-Binary Staff and our Harassment and Bullying Zero Tolerance policy. Most recently, the University’s Council has approved two new policy documents on Tackling Misogyny, Harassment, Sexism and Sexual Violence against Women and on Domestic Abuse. These represent important additions to the framework of policies through which we are supporting the needs of all members of the University community.

Other actions taken have related to our relationships – those we hold internally and those we manage with external organisations. We reported in the summer that our Senate and Council endorsed our portfolio approach to promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, drawing on support from a range of third-party organisations and making use of external benchmarks and charters where this is appropriate to help us assess our practice, and to identify areas where we can refine and enhance our approach, consistent with our obligations. Internally, we also consulted with our community to devise a strategy for repairing relationships among University members, consistent with the University’s obligation to have due regard to fostering good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. This has included enhancements to our mental health and welfare support arrangements on campus, and to our report and support system, through which all members of the University community are able to report issues of concern that they have experienced or witnessed.

Over the last year, we have provided additional support for our staff and student network groups, enabling them to work with their members to support their engagement with the University.  In addition, a student-focused Diverse Support Group has been established, run fortnightly by the Student Wellbeing and Inclusivity Service (SWIS) to ensure that the University’s wellbeing services are accessible to all students.

We know that progressing the actions agreed by Senate and Council has meant we have had to tackle issues that have sometimes felt challenging. Our commitment to promoting academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law and to creating an inclusive and supportive environment for our students and staff remains undiminished. Promoting an environment within which all students and staff feel encouraged and supported in expressing their own Essex Spirit and in sharing their views and opinions within the law will enable us to be a university that is inclusive for everyone.

Alongside this work, we have also committed to providing and signposting our community to sources of support when they might need it. For students, our Student Wellbeing and Inclusivity Service has access to diverse resources, including counselling, mental health and wellbeing programmes, peer networks and specialist services. Our Occupational Health team can work with staff to access help and referrals to other support services, including confidential referrals for structured counselling available through Validium. Please do take advantage of these services if you need support on any issue relevant to this blog, or on any other issue.