The University Grants Commission (UGC) has introduced a series of regulations since 2015 to address this issue of sexual harassment and guarantee the safety and dignity for everyone in higher education system of India. A substantial step has been taken in establishing safer and more inclusive learning and working environments by gradually strengthening and restating these standards over the years. This article explores the development of these UGC policies and how they affect Indian higher education institutions.
The main goal of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 is to protect women against sexual harassment at work. On the other hand, the wording and approach of the UGC regulations, particularly the 2015 Regulations and later modifications, are gender neutral. These rules are intended to address issues with sexual harassment for people of all genders. In order to combat sexual harassment, they place a strong emphasis on inclusivity and the creation of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) with student representatives, regardless of the gender of the complainant or respondent. This broader approach ensures that everyone inside the higher education system is protected and has a mechanism of redress while acknowledging that sexual harassment can affect anyone.
2015: UGC Regulations
In 2015, the UGC issued the “University Grants Commission (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2015.” These regulations were enacted in accordance with the University Grants Commission Act, 1956, and were formally promulgated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development on May 2, 2016. The 2015 Regulations provide a thorough framework for addressing sexual harassment issues in academic and professional contexts and have a broad scope that includes all higher educational institutions in India.
Key provisions of the 2015 Regulations:
- The Regulations mandated the formation of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) that includes student representatives.
- The Regulations emphasized the significance of inclusive campuses with non-discriminatory safety measures, acknowledging the vulnerability of students owing to a variety of causes. It requires Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) to ensure safety without imposing discriminatory rules or excessive monitoring, especially for women. It promotes the use of women’s hostels, dependable transportation, healthcare that considers gender, proper campus lighting, and staff training programs.
- ‘Third-party harassment’ is defined in Regulation 2(m), to include instances of sexual harassment resulting from actions of individuals visiting a higher educational institution or outsider, excluding employees or enrolled students of the institution.
- Victimisation’ as defined in Regulation 2(n) of the 2015 Regulation encompasses any form of adverse treatment directed at an aggrieved person with an implicit or explicit aim to solicit sexual favours.
- The Regulations requires Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) to adopt the spirit of the regulations in their polices and promulgate ordinance and reformulate it accordingly. It emphasised that HEIs across the nation should have zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and publicly commit to it.
- All HEIs are required to undertake following measures:
- To reconstitute existing bodies such as Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) as ICC as per the provisions of the regulations.
- To display in a conspicuous place or Notice board the consequence of sexual harassment and contact details of the ICC members.
- Conduct orientation and training programmes for the ICC members and ensure that employees and students are well-informed about the redressal mechanism in the event they experience sexual harassment.
- To take proactive measures to prevent all types of harassment directed at employees and students, whether it arises from individuals in positions of power or hierarchy within HEI, intimate partner violence, peer interactions, or external entities beyond the geographical boundaries of the HEI.
- If the perpetrator is an employee, regard sexual harassment as a misconduct according to service rules and initiate appropriate disciplinary actions.
- If the perpetrator is a student, consider sexual harassment a violation of disciplinary rules, potentially resulting in rustication or expulsion.
- To monitor the timely submission of reports by the ICC.
- To compile an annual status report detailing the number of cases filed, their resolutions, and submit it to the Commission.
- To regularly update the rules and regulations governing the functioning of the ICC, as and when legal frameworks evolve due to court judgments and changing laws.
- To ensure that Higher Educational Institutions’ Executive Authorities provide full support for timely implementation of ICC recommendations, including the provision of resources like office infrastructure, staff, and adequate finances.
- To conduct biannual reviews of the effectiveness and implementation of anti-sexual harassment policies.
- To incorporate gender-oriented sessions into orientation and refresher courses in Academic Staff Colleges, aligning with the UGC SAKSHAM Report.
- To include gender sensitization and sexual harassment modules in orientation courses for administrators, conducting regular workshops for the entire institution.
- To establish institutionalized counselling services with well-trained, full-time counsellors.
- To ensure the presence of well-trained security staff, including a balanced ratio of women security personnel who receive gender sensitization training.
- To revive and fund Women’s Development Cells in colleges to carry out gender sensitization activities, collaborate with ICCs, and disseminate anti-sexual harassment policies effectively.
- To ensure full compliance of the regulations, including the appointment of the ICC, within sixty days from the date of publication of regulations.
2017: Strengthening the Commitment
In 2017, the UGC issued a letter reminding universities and institutions to make sure the 2015 Regulations are followed. They placed a strong emphasis on creating ICCs and Special Cells to deal with gender-based violence and run programs that promote gender sensitization. Institutions were instructed to provide information on sexual harassment cases and the ICC constitution in an Annual Return. It emphasized to secure the safety of the protection of students and employees.
2021: A Continued Focus
In 2021, the UGC issued another reminder to universities and colleges, reinforcing the importance of complying with the 2015 Regulations. This communication also mandated completing an online compliance for Gender Audit on the SAKSHAM Portal. (https://saksham.ugc.ac.in/Home/advisor) Furthermore, all affiliated colleges were to be informed about the regulations to ensure a consistent approach to preventing sexual harassment.
The UGC also directed institutions to conduct a one-day awareness program on the Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment (POSH) on December 9, 2021, to commemorate the 8th Anniversary of the Act. This gesture demonstrated the UGC’s continued commitment to addressing the issue of sexual harassment.
2023: Strengthening the Resolve
In 2023, the UGC issued fresh directives, underscoring the need for Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) to further strengthen their commitment to addressing sexual harassment. The directives outlined several essential measures, including the establishment of ICCs and Special Cells, the display of awareness banners and posters, and the publicizing of ICC members’ names and contact details on institutional notice boards and portals. HEIs were also instructed to organize training sessions to sensitize employees, emphasizing the violation of fundamental rights through sexual harassment. These directives reinforced the binding nature of the 2015 Regulations on HEIs and reiterated the responsibilities and consequences for non-compliance.
An overview of the inquiry process under UGC Regulation:
1. ICC Constitution:
Every Executive Authority must establish an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) with a built-in gender sensitization mechanism to address sexual harassment. The ICC should consist of:
- A Presiding Officer, preferably a senior-level woman faculty member nominated by the Executive Authority, or from other relevant workplace units if no senior-level woman is available.
- Two faculty members and two non-teaching employees, selected by the Executive Authority, with a commitment to women’s issues, social work experience, or legal knowledge.
- Three students, if the matter involves students, elected through a transparent democratic process, representing undergraduate, master’s, and research scholar levels.
- One member from non-government organizations or associations dedicated to women’s causes or with expertise in sexual harassment issues, nominated by the Executive Authority.
At least half of the ICC members must be women. Senior administrative personnel in the HEI, such as Vice-Chancellors, Pro Vice-Chancellors, and others, cannot be ICC members to ensure their autonomy. Members serve a three-year term, with the option for one-third of the members to change annually.
2.Filing of Complaint
As per the Regulations, an aggrieved person is required to submit a written complaint to the ICC within three months of the incident or the last incident in a series. The Presiding Officer or an ICC Member offers assistance if the complainant cannot write. The ICC can extend the time limit, with reasons provided in writing. Friends, relatives, colleagues, co-students, psychologists, or associates can file complaints when the aggrieved person is unable due to physical or mental incapacity or death.
- Upon receiving the complaint, the ICC sends a copy to the respondent within seven days. The respondent submits a reply with documents and witness information within ten days.
- The inquiry must conclude within ninety days of receiving the complaint, with recommendations submitted within ten days.
- The Executive Authority acts on recommendations within thirty days unless an appeal is filed within that time by either party.
- The Executive Authority must record reasons for its decision and proceed accordingly, including providing a show cause notice when acting in line with recommendations.
- Conciliation is encouraged to resolve conflicts, facilitated by the HEI, without monetary settlements.
- The identities of involved parties remain confidential during the inquiry.
As per the Regulations, the HEI may take various measures to address the situation, including transferring complainants or respondents, granting leave, restraining the respondent, ensuring offender warnings, and providing a safe environment against retaliation and victimization.
5.Punishment and Compensation:
- Employee Offenders shall face punishment according to HEI service rules.
- Students may face actions ranging from privileges withholding to expulsion, as warranted.
- Compensation can be awarded based on factors like mental trauma, career loss, medical expenses, income, and feasibility of payment.
6.Action Against Frivolous Complaints:
There is a provision in the Regulations to deter false or malicious complaints as well in the Regulation. It states consequences for the complainant when intent is maliciously established through inquiry. Its emphasis that inability to substantiate a complaint does not attract penalties. Malicious intent is only determined through due process.
7.Appeal Provisions in UGC Guidelines:
As per the Regulations, an appeal against the findings or /recommendations of the ICC may be filed by either party before the Executive Authority of the HEI within a period of thirty days from the date of the recommendations.
8.Consequences of Non-compliance with UGC Guidelines:
In the event of an HEI wilfully contravening or repeatedly failing to fulfil its obligations regarding the prevention, prohibition, and resolution of sexual harassment against employees and students, the Commission may take various actions following due notice. These actions include withdrawing grants under section 12B of the University Grants Commission Act, removing the institution’s name from the Commission’s list, withholding allocated grants, declaring the institution ineligible for assistance programs, publicly declaring the institution’s lack of a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment, recommending affiliation withdrawal for colleges or withdrawal of deemed university status, and recommending the withdrawal of university status under a State Act. The Commission may also impose other penalties available within its authority, continuing until compliance is achieved. However, no action will be taken without affording the institution an opportunity to explain its position and be heard.
The University Grants Commission’s regulations on preventing sexual harassment in higher education institutions are a crucial step towards fostering safer and more inclusive environments for students and employees. Through a series of regulations and reminders, the UGC has consistently reinforced the need for compliance with these guidelines, emphasizing gender inclusivity, non-discrimination, and the prevention of sexual harassment. As higher education institutions in India continue to evolve, these regulations serve as a foundation for ensuring the safety and dignity of all individuals within their academic and workplace settings.