University and Guild collaborate to tackle and prevent sexual and online harassment on campus

The University of Liverpool and the Guild of Students are continuing to address sexual and online harassment on campus, with two recent reports ensuring the approach is research-informed.

This joint commitment aims to tackle and prevent all forms of harassment and abuse, and to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to identify harassment. It is responding to the 2016 Universities UK ‘Changing the Culture’ report, which revealed that harassment and hate crime are prevalent among students on UK university campuses.

The #Speakout and Tackling sexual harassment in the ‘student experience’ reports concern online harassment and sexual harassment respectively. They support initiatives such as the University and Guild’s ‘Bystander Intervention training’ which has been delivered to more than 2,000 student leaders in the last two years and involves workshops which enable students to recognise and combat sexual misconduct. This training continues to be reviewed and developed, to address harassment and abuse more widely.

Other interventions introduced by the University include a new Report and Support tool for students and staff wishing to seek advice and support for incidents of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence, hate crimes or discrimination.

Work in this area also remains a key priority for the Guild of Students, and the Student Officer team will be refreshing and relaunching a campaign which addresses sexual violence and misconduct over the next couple of months. They will also continue to listen to students and share their learning and experiences with the University in order to ensure complaints and disciplinary processes are accessible and fit for purpose.

Tackling sexual harassment in the ‘student experience’

The University’s Safe and Welcoming Campus Environment project included the commissioning of the Tackling sexual harassment in the ‘student experience’ report.

Authored by Dr Mark O’Brien (Student Experience and Enhancement Directorate), this follows the launch of the Guild’s Call It Out campaign, which encourages a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and assault.

Dr O’Brien’s report, which surveyed nearly 2,000 first and second year students, details how the close collaboration between the University and the Guild mirrors national level work between the NUS and Universities UK on this ongoing issue for UK policymakers.

The key findings from the report include:

  • Students reported having experienced or having witnessed a wide range of types of sexual harassment.
  • Around two fifths of all students reported negative perceptions of ‘campus culture’ with respect to sexual harassment, based upon their experience.
  • Higher percentages of students who are lesbian, gay or bisexual reported having experienced sexually harassing behaviour, than heterosexual students did.
  • While both men and women reported experiences of sexual harassment, women reported experiences of sexual harassment at far higher frequencies than men.
  • Sub-cultures of student life may contribute to the problem of sexual harassment e.g. ‘house-culture’ in the private-rented sector; and certain behaviours being normalised in some student clubs and societies
  • The Bystander programme, led by the Guild of Students and delivered in partnership with the University, was welcomed and considered to be well organised.

Commenting on the report Dr Mark O’Brien said: “This research has cast a stark light upon the unacceptable behaviour of some students towards others; behaviours that can and do cause personal and educational harm. These findings should be used now to help bring about positive changes in campus culture; changes that are needed urgently across the HE sector as a whole.”

#Speakout: Calling out online harassment, changing the online campus

The #Speakout report details findings of research, involving more than 1600 students about the scale and forms of online harassment they have experienced and observed in their peer groups.

This research, which included surveys and qualitative interviews, has informed relevant interventions that aim to tackle and prevent these practices, and also encourage the University community to ‘speak out’ against online harassment, on the campus and beyond.

Authored by Dr Craig Haslop and Dr Fiona O’Rourke from the University’s Department of Communication and Media, the #Speakout report was funded as part of a UK-wide Office for Students (OfS) initiative to improve upon safeguarding measures that tackle online harassment.

The key findings from the report include:

  • 21.94% of student respondents felt they had personally experienced online harassment and 5% thought they may have. This is lower than Government estimates which suggest about 41% of young people have experienced cyberbullying (HMG, 2018).
  • Online harassment is normalised. Student respondents often did not recognise that they had been subjected to it, until asked about specific scenarios.
  • Online harassment can have adverse impacts on health, wellbeing and educational studies
  • 25.9% of women have experienced online harassment, compared to 18% of men; women are also more likely to experience sexualised and gendered forms of online harassment, including image-based harassment.
  • Nearly two thirds (70.9%) of respondents identifying as transgender or non-binary gender report that they have, or may have, been subjected to online harassment (although this is based on a relatively small sample).
  • Students were less likely to report some forms of online abuse than others. For example, students were less likely to report abuse towards those posting their political views or women posting feminist views, than they were students who sent abusive messages.

#Speakout interventions and impact

Interventions in response to the research findings have included:

  • A large-scale awareness-raising initiative on campus as part of the Guild of Students’ Call It Out campaign, which detailed the University’s and the Guild’s commitment to tackling online harassment, de-normalising these practices and raising students’ critical awareness of the issue. The campaign addressed relevant issues such as digital consent and gendered forms of harassment and improving the visibility of reporting systems and support services at the University and the Guild to safeguard students against online harassment.
  • Adding a centralised resource to the University webpages that explores issues of online harassment including about how to report and seek advice from student support services on the university campus.
  • Producing an online training module titled ‘Developing a Positive Online Presence’ accessible to all students as part of the KnowHow suite of resources.
  • Informing developments to the active bystander intervention training to addresses online harassment.

A follow-up survey showed that these interventions had brought about an increase in student respondent’s critical awareness of online harassment amongst students, an increase in their willingness to report incidents of online harassment and improved knowledge of reporting systems at the University and/or Guild. For example, when respondents were asked if they would report observing abuse directed towards female students who publicly post comments that voice their support for feminism, 44.17% of respondents would have reported in the benchmark survey versus 65.5% in the follow up survey.

Commenting on the report Dr Craig Haslop said: “This report highlights that online harassment is an issue affecting many, including our students. Our initial evaluation suggests we’ve had some success with our interventions and highlights that raising basic critical awareness of what constitutes online harassment, can have a real impact. However, online harassment is deeply normalised in society, therefore continued change requires a commitment to long term intervention and evaluation.”

Dr Fiona O’Rourke added: “We’re delighted with the impact the project has had so far, but this is just one project which will form a meaningful basis for further research, particularly around intersectional forms of harassment, and further collaborative work within and beyond the HE sector.”

For further information or a copy of either report, email