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Are UK Universities Doing Enough To Protect Students From Sexual Misconduct?

“Universities have a responsibility to ensure a safe environment for students and the evidence shows that students are affected by incidents of harassment, hate crime and violence against women. These are problems which affect wider society and every region of the country – universities are not immune from them and in many ways are a microcosm of society. Currently, 48% of young people participate in higher education by the time they are 30 and there are 2.3 million students enrolled in UK universities. This further underlines the need for the sector to take these issues seriously” - UUK, ‘Changing The Culture Report’, 2016

What the above statement reiterates is that issues of sexual violence are not exclusive to university campuses. Even so, students make up some of the most high risk groups of individuals affected by sexual assaults and other forms of sexual violence. A prominent and pressing question is why? Within university environments, wider societal issues appear to be amplified including toxic and negative themes such as rape culture, misogyny and the risk of sexual violence from those close to the victim. These are further intensified by moving away from home and established support networks, something that many students will be doing for the first time. As well as this, individuals come from different backgrounds, so there are disparities in their levels of sex education and conversations around consent.

As places of education, universities are uniquely and well positioned to act as a leveling field and to consolidate the lack of knowledge or harmful ideas that students may hold. However, instead of dispelling potentially harmful misconceptions on sex and consent, they seem to become heightened on campus, with harmful consequences for students.

Reclaim The Campus is a student (and recent graduate) led campaign focusing on issues of sexual harassment and violence in Higher Education. We’ve been able to research and identify some of the policy issues across UK universities to delve into and confront the question of whether UK universities are failing to protect and support their students and staff. Through researching the question of whether universities are doing enough to protect their students and staff from sexual harassment and assault, we’ve found that many universities don’t have specific sexual misconduct policy in place. Many may mention it in harassment policies or even a student conduct policy, but this fails to clarify how those universities are dealing with sexual misconduct and how students can expect to be supported. This makes it easier for universities to vary their procedures, deterring students from reporting incidents. Examples include the Universities of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Liverpool where sexual misconduct policy falls under policies focusing on Dignity, Respect and Student Conduct.

The other issue with many UK universities not having a specific sexual misconduct policy is that many important aspects of ensuring that students are protected and supported get neglected. For example, without a policy including a clear definition of sexual misconduct and the sanctions that a perpetrator will face, how can universities ensure they correctly identify and sanction those who have committed harassment or assault? Also, if sexual misconduct is simply mentioned in ‘Dignity in Study’ policy for example, how can universities ensure they have the appropriate support and resources in place for sexual assault victims? If it isn’t required for all UK universities to have a specific sexual misconduct policy in place how can individual universities ensure they are making effective judgments in terms of reporting procedures? Ultimately, the result is that many universities are failing in these areas and incidents either aren’t getting reported or aren’t getting dealt with properly, meaning both the culture and cases persist.

The thing is, specific policy guidelines on sexual misconduct do exist. Universities UK along with the law firm, Pinsent Masons, created a set of guidelines that have only been enforced by a handful of universities. Whilst there are complexities surrounding making uniform policy guidelines compulsory nationally, ensuring that all universities in the UK are pressured to meet a standard in policy on sexual misconduct would be a good start in tackling the issue. This is why we’re working to ensure that all UK universities have a specific sexual misconduct policy in place that includes the provisions that we’ve identified as important to sufficiently address the issue and keep students safe. This includes abiding by a definition of sexual misconduct, having support resources and specialists available for survivors, having accessible reporting tools without time limits to submit complaints, having consent workshops on campus and detailing sanctions for perpetrators.

One of the most common locations on campus for sexual assaults was halls of residence - reportedly 28%. (Revolve Report, 2018)

Of course, the other dimension of this is that having specific and sufficient policy in place can only go so far. Whilst our focus so far has been on researching policy, there are many cases where we’ve recognised that student experience doesn’t match up to what appears to be a university dealing with sexual misconduct well, from their publicised policy. That’s why it’s continually important to champion student voices and experience and put pressure on universities to properly enforce any policy they have in place. Also within this focus on students and their experiences, it’s also become clear that intersectional identity is inherently tied up in student experiences at university, including in terms of experience of sexual assault and harassment. Therefore, it’s essential for recognition of this to be considered and integrated in all aspects of universities’ response to addressing sexual misconduct, whether that’s a student’s gender, ethnicity, disability or sexuality.

73% of surveyed students and graduates who identified as having a disability reported having experienced sexual violence. (Revolve Report, 2018)

With these factors in our research established, and opportunities to use this knowledge for real change increasing for our campaign, we’re now looking to the broader picture of our aim to tackle issues of sexual misconduct in Higher Education:

For example, whilst so far our primary focus has been on student experiences, we’ve recognised that sexual misconduct at university isn’t limited to students. Staff may also experience and perpetrate sexual assault, as seen at Strathclyde and De Montfort. As many as one in eight students may have experienced unwanted touching from staff. Furthermore, that number may well be higher for student-on-student assault as sexual assault at universities goes far beyond the campus itself. Take for instance, sexual assault in public nightclubs, rape comments in group chats at Warwick and Durham, students petitioning police because it's unsafe for them to walk home at night, and universities refusing to investigate off-campus cases.

Within our campaign, we’re constantly faced with the wider and deeply embedded culture of the ‘normality’ of instances like this at university, which seems to be intertwined with institutions’ organisational silencing of survivors and prioritising of reputation over student wellbeing. Take for example, instances like getting groped in the SU and having your friends pretend it didn’t matter, a spate of assaults carried out by members of the same student society, a former student rapist walking free from court. Take also years of anti-rape protests at Warwick with students starting their own hashtag because no one was listening, a student-led Instagram accounts like St Andrews Survivors standing against rape culture, whilst universities issue vague press releases or students writing open letters to their rapists to process what happened to them. It’s a thousand other things.

55% of surveyed non-binary students and recent graduates had experienced sexual violence (Revolt Report, 2018)

Also, the issues we’ve mentioned aren’t exclusive to these universities or to universities in general. They’re just the ones that made the papers. Many more stories are swept under the carpet, or go untold because survivors don’t think they’ll be believed. Of the students who choose to raise issues with their institution, many face long, confusing and painful disciplinary processes, which aren’t always handled correctly. Sometimes, the university won’t do anything at all, or will only react to public pressure. And even then, many feel shame or embarrassment, or know of people who weren’t believed. Consent is complex and can be easily broken. Sometimes, it’s even uncertain whether or not something was sexual assault.

This goes to show how important it is to recognise that tackling sexual misconduct at UK universities and other forms of harassment falls under global issues. As part of our campaign we spotlight and focus on relevant events throughout the year such as Black History Month in which we dedicated the platform to intersectional issues of racism and gendered racial violence as well the recent 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. For the latter we generated and shared content that incorporated our research and on what the 16 Days covered. Our campaign is an intersectional and inclusive one but we recognise that the issues we cover heavily encompass an element of gendered violence, as well as the rape culture that is reflective of issue of society as a whole. Around the world, laws govern women’s rights to healthcare and their bodies, inform what is internalised by those growing up in our globalised world and may lead to entitlement of women’s bodies and individuals in people's daily lives. High profile cases that blame victims for their choice of underwear or sexual histories send out the message that there may be a possibility of “leading a perpetrator on” or soliciting one’s own assault rather than the important message that consent in every instance should be clear, communicated and freely given.

When asked why they didn’t report sexual crimes to their university, 56% of those surveyed replied that they didn't feel that it was serious enough. 35% said they felt too ashamed and 29% said they didn't know how.

(Revolt Report, 2018)

Clearly, tackling sexual misconduct at UK Universities is just the tip of the iceberg. Are UK Universities doing enough to protect students from sexual misconduct? Universities say they’re trying. But are they trying hard enough? Clearly, sexual misconduct policies are the start of dismantling something much bigger. Yes, that iceberg is too great to be broken down in one but by helping us to pressure them to take some of the actions we’ve mentioned, we can make a start at chipping away at it.

By Reclaim the campus- A campaign ran by students (and recent graduates) for students - to address the prominent issue of sexual harassment and assault in Higher Education.

1 Comment

saurabh yevale
saurabh yevale
Aug 08, 2023

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