The University's approach

The University of Liverpool takes the issues of sexual assault, harassment and hate crime extremely seriously and has a number of initiatives in place to tackle them. Over the summer of 2017, the University approved substantial changes to its Policy on Student Conduct and Discipline in light of new requirements for universities to investigate potentially criminal misconduct, including sexual misconduct, under its disciplinary procedures.

Key points to note:

  1. Wherever a student commits an offence – on campus, in the community, abroad or in online or digital spaces – they are subject to the University’s disciplinary procedures and code of conduct.
  2. University disciplinary proceedings are not equivalent to, and will not be carried out alongside, criminal proceedings.
  3. Disciplinary proceedings relating to potentially criminal misconduct may be brought if the complainant does not wish to go to the police.
  4. Disciplinary proceedings relating to potentially criminal misconduct may be brought after the conclusion of criminal proceedings, including where the alleged perpetrator is acquitted.
  5. A new Appendix has been added to the Policy outlining what the University considers to be non-academic misconduct, and giving indicative sanctions for each offence.

You can download the updated Policy and its appendices here.

Prevention and support

In addition to revising its policy framework, the University has been proactive in its work aimed at preventing sexual assault, harassment and hate crime, and supporting students who experience these issues. Training on responding to initial disclosures is offered to all student-facing staff on a rolling, monthly basis, aimed at ensuring that whoever a student discloses to, they receive a consistent and supportive experience. All Student Welfare Advice and Guidance staff have received training from RASA Merseyside on supporting survivors of rape and sexual assault.

The University was granted funding by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to deliver a pilot programme of bystander intervention workshops to student leaders in the autumn of 2017, aimed at changing cultures on campus around sexual misconduct. Another externally funded project due to report in July 2018 is researching students' expectations of their universities when they disclose experiencing sexual assault. During 2018 the University will also be running a HEFCE-funded project focusing on online harassment.

The University also supports the Guild of Students' "Call It Out" campaign against sexual harassment.

Context

The University's work in this area is steered by the Safe and Welcoming Campus Environments Project, hosted in Student Administration and Support and sponsored by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Dame Janet Beer. This project was set up in response to the publication of a report by a Universities UK taskforce published in October 2016, recommending changes to how universities respond to violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. This taskforce was set up by the UK government in response to heightened national and media attention on the issue of student sexual assault, including campaigns by students’ unions and the National Union of Students.

Previous guidance for universities on investigating cases of potentially criminal misconduct, including sexual misconduct, was published in 1994 and is known as the Zellick report. Under this guidance, where a complainant did not wish to report an incident of potentially criminal misconduct to the police, universities were advised to take no disciplinary action. This guidance was revised in 2016 on the recommendation of the task force, who noted:

“the [Zellick] guidelines did not adequately reflect the various duties and obligations that universities have in relation to their students or assist universities in handling the most complex and sensitive incidents, particularly those involving sexual violence.”

The new legal guidance published alongside the UUK taskforce report had these key recommendations:

  1. Universities should have a clear, accessible code of conduct that clearly articulates offences and indicative sanctions.
  2. The criminal process takes priority over disciplinary proceedings, and universities should take no disciplinary action until criminal proceedings have concluded. They are permitted, however, to impose precautionary measures based on a risk assessment whilst investigations are being carried out.
  3. Criminal and disciplinary offences are separate and distinct. Disciplinary offences should not use criminal terminology as universities are not courts, and can only investigate breaches of their own rules. Disciplinary offences have a lower burden of proof than criminal offences (“balance of probabilities” as opposed to “beyond reasonable doubt”).
  4. Universities can and should bring disciplinary proceedings:
    • Where the complainant does not wish to go to the police;
    • Where the criminal process acquits the alleged perpetrator.

2017 Amendments to the Policy on Studnet Conduct and Discipline

Policy scope

It has always been the case that a student’s conduct is subject to the Policy on Student Conduct and Discipline during their entire period of registration with us, up to and including graduation, and wherever they are during this time. This has been made much more explicit, particularly in the areas of online and digital spaces, and with regard to conduct in private residences and in the community.

Code of conduct and indicative sanctions

The main amendment to the Policy on Student Conduct and Discipline is a new Appendix I, “Non-academic misconduct offences and indicative sanctions”. This Appendix clearly outlines offences under the following categories: physical misconduct; sexual misconduct; abusive behaviour; property, health and safety; fraud and dishonesty; operational obstruction (of the University) and reputational damage (to the University). Each offence is given an indicative level of sanction: category 1, 2 or 3. Category 1 offences are relatively minor and sanctions include a reprimand, a small fine or the requirement to make good any damage to property. Category 2 offences are more serious and will usually include an educational or restorative element, such as the requirement to complete a course or undertake a reflective exercise. Category 3 offences are the most serious and could attract a sanction of termination of studies, suspension or a delay to graduation.

Discretion, aggravating and mitigating factors

Whilst we recognise the need for greater clarity around indicative sanctions, we also recognise the need to allow the Board of Discipline some discretion to consider the specific circumstances of each case. As such, the Appendix specifies certain aggravating and mitigating factors, as well as offering a range of sanctions at each level of offence. Aggravating factors may attract a harsher sanction, and include offences linked to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010; causing physical injury; repeat offences; abuse of a power relationship; and domestic abuse. Mitigating factors are largely contextual and at the Board’s discretion, depending upon the specific circumstances in which an offence has taken place.

Criminal convictions

Students have previously been required to inform the University if they are cautioned, charged with or convicted of a criminal offence. The new policy extends this requirement to disclose if they are subject to an investigation that may lead to them being charged with a crime. On receipt of any such disclosure, the University will convene a Risk Assessment Panel and may impose precautionary measures whilst investigations are ongoing.

Role of the complainant

Previously, there was little role for the complainant in disciplinary procedures, primarily because the complainant was normally the University itself. However, as the University starts to take on more complex cases, there will be a need to include the complainant in procedures in a way that is fair and equitable to all parties. Complainants will now be invited to attend and give statements at Boards of Discipline. Due to the potentially traumatic nature of these cases, the Policy has introduced provision for Boards of Discipline to make proportionate adjustments to permit the complainant to give testimony without encountering the alleged perpetrator. Examples of such adjustments could include permitting testimony via video link, or providing separate waiting rooms for the complainant and alleged perpetrator. The alleged perpetrator’s right to reply will be assured by permitting them to direct questions through the Chair of the Board. All Board members will be given training on handling sensitive cases, including the types of questions that are and are not appropriate to ask complainants in a sexual misconduct case.