Universities have ‘culture of protecting predators’ – UCU

Survey suggests 12% of women and 5% of men working in universities have directly experienced workplace sexual violence

One in 10 college and university staff has experienced workplace sexual violence in the past five years, according to a University and College Union (UCU) survey of its members and representatives.

The report published today, ‘Eradicating sexual violence in tertiary education’, was produced by a UCU sexual violence taskforce chaired by Professor Lesley McMillan of the Glasgow School for Business and Society. Responses came from nearly 4,000 UCU members and 100 UCU reps, as well as UCU officials, other campus trade unions, lawyers and other professionals with expertise in sexual violence.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady told a press briefing the report showed there had been a “collective failure” across the sector to tackle sexual violence. She said that while she did not believe “education has more predators than other sectors of society” there was nonetheless, within higher education, “a culture of protecting predators when it comes to it.”

Key statistics

The report found that over the past five years:

  • 12% of women and 5% of men surveyed had directly experienced workplace sexual violence
  • Of those who directly experienced sexual violence, 52% did not disclose or report it to their employer
  • Sexual violence was an ongoing pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off incident for 70% of those who directly experienced it
  • Staff on non-permanent contracts were 1.3 times as likely to experience direct sexual violence than those in permanent roles – often because they are PGRs whose careers are reliant on building relationships with more established members of staff, eg on joint publications
  • Trans and non-binary staff were at higher risk of directly experiencing sexual violence (1.3 times as likely)
  • Staff with disabilities were twice as likely to experience direct sexual violence years as non-disabled staff
  • Staff with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual were almost twice as likely (1.9 times) to directly experience sexual violence than their heterosexual peers


‘Power differentials’ between survivors and perpetrators were blamed by many of those surveyed for the prevalence of sexual violence.

One, who didn’t report the incident, said: “This was a member of the senior leadership team with a reputation of being untouchable due [to] his charm and charisma […] The main issue in my experience is how problems with sexual violence are typically dealt with according to the status in the institution of the alleged abuser, i.e. if they are a prof with a large grant record, you may as well forget it.”

Another said: “The institution/department was only concerned with covering up their star lecturer. I was vilified and smeared so that my concerns would be dismissed […] I even had to share an office with him afterwards.”

Jo Grady said the findings showed “shocking levels of institutional failure and reflect a culture in which protecting the reputation of a university or college comes before delivering justice for survivors”.

UCU’s own failings

The report also highlights how UCU’s own process for members reporting sexual violence has failed.

Respondents who had made sexual violence complaints to UCU branches reported inappropriate and inconsistent support, or even access to support being withheld. UCU’s lack of support was particularly pronounced, according to the report, when complaints were made against staff who held a UCU branch position or were long-standing union activists. One respondent said: “UCU rep stopped speaking to me after I raised concerns about a popular colleague.”

UCU says it is already undertaking a review into its own process for members reporting sexual violence, which is due to conclude in January and created a new role for a designated case worker to represent members who have experienced sexual violence. This will be followed by a nationwide campaign in 2022 to raise awareness of the issue.

Following the report, UCU will now also train more representatives as specialists in the area of sexual violence, review practices around the support it gives alleged perpetrators, including ending the negotiation of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and introduce a specially drafted sexual violence policy to ensure it is “at the forefront of best practice in dealing with sexual violence complaints”.

Definition of sexual violence

UCU defines sexual violence as a “continuum” running from invasion of personal space and sexual jokes up to sexual assault and rape.

“We recognise that sexual violence is not a legal term, but is used here as an umbrella term to describe various sexual offences,” says UCU, adding that its definition aligns with that used by Universities UK.

“We use the term sexual violence to include rape, sexual assault, stalking, revenge porn, as well as a range of everyday behaviours in the online and offline world. This comprises but is not limited to ‘whistling, catcalling, sexual comments, sexual innuendo, telling sexual jokes and stories, spreading rumours about a person’s sex life, non-verbal harassment such as looking someone up and down, displaying pictures of a sexual nature, sending unsolicited communication containing sexual content, making sexual gestures, asking for sexual favours, and physical unwanted sexual advances such as kissing, touching, hugging, stroking, patting of someone’s clothes, body, hair, and rubbing up against someone, where the touching is sexual”.

The report’s proposals

UCU makes several recommendations for employers to implement to reduce levels of sexual violence and increase support for survivors:

  • The prevention and resolution of sexual violence should be treated as a health and safety (H&S) matter by universities and colleges
  • NDAs with perpetrators must be abandoned, outcomes of complaints disclosed to survivors, and information about disciplinary proceedings included in perpetrators’ references
  • Employers should recognise that staff casualisation exacerbates sexual violence and work with UCU to end it
  • Proceedings against alleged perpetrators should continue after they have left the institution, where necessary and if the complainant wishes it
  • Counselling should be provided for employees who complain about sexual violence and their representatives
  • Employers should acknowledge that GDPR does not provide a basis for failing to share outcomes of complaints with survivors, and revise their approach to information-sharing


‘The sector is waking up to the problem’

“We are indebted to the many survivors who have entrusted us with their experiences,” said chair of the UCU sexual violence taskforce Professor Lesley McMillan.

“This groundbreaking report demonstrates the widespread and enduring nature of sexual violence in the workplace and makes clear and concise recommendations for change. The sector is waking up to the problem however it is clear that progress is variable, and in some cases, slow or yet to begin.  It is now vital that employers and unions work together to create a university and college sector that is inclusive and safe, prevents these harms from occurring, and offers support and redress when they do. Institutions’ reputations will rest on the extent to which they acknowledge the problem and take steps to address it.

“I would like to thank all those who contributed to the task group surveys, conversations and calls for evidence, contributions which have allowed us to more fully understand the problem of sexual violence and provide concrete recommendations for change. I am incredibly grateful to the members of the task group who approached this work with diligence, sensitivity and thoughtfulness.”

‘Little wonder over half don’t report their abuse at all’

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The brave testimony from survivors should mark a turning point in the fight against sexual violence and ring in the ears of college and university leaders who have allowed sexual violence to become endemic on campus.

“The report’s findings reveal shocking levels of institutional failure and reflect a culture in which protecting the reputation of a university or college comes before delivering justice for survivors.

“Survivors say managers are often dismissive towards those reporting sexual violence, complaints processes are hardwired to frustrate claims and non-disclosure agreements are used to silence them, forcing many to leave their employment without justice. With practices like this, it is little wonder over half don’t report their abuse at all.

“The report also demonstrates clearly the extent to which staff on casualised contracts are prevented from speaking up for fear of losing their jobs or not having their short-term contract renewed. These power imbalances belong in the past and universities and colleges must finally recognise that casualisation exacerbates sexual violence and bring staff onto secure contracts.

“It is unfortunately no surprise either that wider social inequalities are reflected in the fact that women, those who are disabled, racialised minorities and those who are LGBT+ and non-binary are more likely to experience sexual violence. We have long assumed this to be the case, but now we have data that demonstrates it. Employers must do more to educate their staff, build genuinely inclusive processes for the reporting of sexual violence, and act when such reports are made.

“The report also makes clear where the union needs to improve its own practices and be accountable to survivors. Some of the recommendations we have already implemented, and I am pleased to be recruiting the union’s first ever specialist sexual violence case worker. I take very seriously my responsibility to take forward other recommendations made for our union, and to get them enacted.

“This report is a gift to our sector and it must not be squandered. It is now time for the union and university and college employers to work together to eradicate sexual violence on campus.”

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