A national survey of bullying in UK universities

Bullying is common in academia. We urgently need an updated, comprehensive survey of bullying in UK universities to understand where and why it is occurring. This information is necessary both for promoting a safe and healthy environment and for developing policy initiatives to combat the problem. Of course, the universities could easily do this themselves. The 21 Group is doing so via crowdsourcing because of their inaction.

Much of this data already exists in piecemeal fashion. University departments that apply for awards such as Athena SWAN or Juno carry out staff surveys. These ask questions on the prevalence of bullying and harassment. Please send us your department’s most recent staff survey at data@21percent.org.

Please also make the following request to your university’s Freedom of Information Officer (FOI) under FOI legislation and send the results to data@21percent.org. We suggest the following wording:

Please can you tell me (i) how many complaints of bullying or harassment were made in each of the last 5 years, broken down according to university department, (ii) how many of these complaints of bullying or harassment were subsequently investigated under the university’s grievance procedure, (iii) how many of these complaints of bullying and harassment were found to be substantiated under the university’s grievance procedure.

There is no reason for any university to withhold this data. It does not identify anyone, it is purely statistical in nature and it has a clear public interest defence in terms of developing policies to prevent bullying. If you have difficulty extracting the information from your university’s FOI officer, you may complain (online) to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). We have found the ICO to be reasonable in judgments, often finding against the culture of secrecy in our universities.

The data will only be used to build a national picture of the occurrence of bullying in UK Universities.

The creation of the University Ombudsman Service

If you raise a complaint in a UK university, the university owns and controls all aspects of the procedure. They do not need to follow their own rules, which are not statutory. If they appoint an external investigator, then they choose him or her. The investigator is usually not truly independent. The old adage ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune‘ applies. Worse still, there is a danger of a symbiotic relationship developing between investigators and universities, with the former providing what the university wants in return for further lucrative investigative work later on.

Whenever organisations are allowed to investigate themselves — whether it is the press or the police or the BBC or the NHS — they usually exonerate themselves. The universities are no exception. University HR and management initially protects the bully or harasser to defend the reputation of the institution. Senior administrators identify themselves as the institution, so the driving factor ultimately becomes self-protection. In universities — even those that talk about ‘best practices’ — serious wrongdoing is routinely hushed up.

To reform this, external scrutiny is needed. Just as the Financial Conduct Authority is independent yet funded by fees from the regulated banks, so universities should be required to fund a University Ombudsman Service — a panel of external investigators and adjudicators.

All complaints by staff and postgraduate students should be reported to the University Ombudsman Service so that statistics can be monitored. The university is then given four months to resolve the matter. At the end of this, if the matter is still not fixed, then an independent Ombudsman takes over the investigation. This prevents the common problem of universities prolonging investigations for many months and years. It provides an incentive to sort matters out quickly.

In practice, the Ombudsman will be responsible for investigating only the most serious concerns that a university has not resolved itself. Crucially, its independence means any investigation cannot be blocked, delayed, or even influenced, by a university’s senior management, HR or legal department.

Undergraduate students already have the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) to appeal to regarding poor service, mistreatment or a decision of a university’s disciplinary body. Undergraduate students actually have more rights than university staff do, at the moment — they are viewed as “paying customers”, whilst the staff are viewed as “service providers”. The University Ombudsman Service could take over dealing with complaints from undergraduate students as well.

All Ombudsman reports should be made public. The purpose is not just to apportion blame, but to provide intelligent solutions so that universities avoid repeating the same mistakes again and again.

It is astonishing that we have permitted a culture to develop in which the staff at UK universities have so little rights.