1752 Group co-director: ‘How many more people need to have extremely harrowing experiences in order for change to be made?’

Anna Bull from 1752 Group talks to UB about ending staff sexual misconduct in higher education, NDAs, and how universities can take ownership of the problem.

Research and campaign organisation 1752 Group has been dedicated to ending staff sexual misconduct in higher education since 2015, when the first UK university conference on staff-to-student sexual harassment was held. More recently the 1752 Group has started to produce training and consultancy resources for higher education institutions to help reduce sexual harassment, and has begun to extend research into student-to-student and staff-to-staff sexual misconduct. Past research included a 2018 national qualitative survey with the NUS women’s campaign which looked at survivors’ experiences of reporting incidences to their institutions.

Anna Bull serves as the co-director of the 1752 Group and is a lecturer in education and social justice.

What are the principal aims and activities of the 1752 Group?

Primarily, we’re trying to make sure that the voices of victim survivors or people who have been subjected to sexual misconduct are not forgotten in the discussion because actually unfortunately that’s what happens. So we’re trying to amplify the voices of victim survivors. Our principal aim is to make sure universities are safer places to work and study, and make sure that people who are subjected to sexual misconduct are not doubly traumatised when they try to report to universities.

Incidences of sexual harassment at universities are said to be higher than we know. Why?

In the UK it’s really hard to get good quality data. Office for National Statistics suggests that around 11% of students will experience sexual assault from other students but we just don’t have more detailed data or detail on staff-to-student or staff-to-staff sexual harassment. Our 2018 NUS study found that 40% of respondents had experienced some form of sexualised behaviour from staff. Other countries like Australia, Ireland, and the US are ordering large-scale national surveys in this area, but what’s happening in the UK? Nothing. Our study was as good as we could do with zero budget, and it was helpful in giving us a picture of what’s going on but we need a much more comprehensive large-scale piece of work. Most universities are not surveying their own populations to find out what’s going on.

Is the situation worse at universities rather than other workplaces?

The academic in me wants to say we don’t know, because we don’t have the data. But from what we do know, I would say probably yes. And is it the power imbalance? I’d say probably, yes.

I think there’s a lot of factors that make universities a conducive context for sexual violence and it’s different depending on whether you’re talking about staff or students as perpetrators. Younger students might be vulnerable because they’re away from home for the first time.

Postgraduate students are really at risk from staff-to-student sexual misconduct because they’re so dependent on academic staff and it’s often a one-to-one teaching relationship. There may not be support structures in place, or if they are in place, they’re not working properly, and there’s still a gender culture where there are more men in positions of power. There might be a culture of sexual assault or sexual harassment, or sexual banter, that the students have to put up with and think about. Even when they try and raise concerns, they’re not necessarily taken seriously. 

Is it still true there are no national guidelines on how universities should respond to staff sexual harassment or record when it happens?

That’s still the case. We got so frustrated at the lack of guidance in that area that we worked with equalities lawyer Georgina Calvert-Lee and in 2020 published guidance for universities on how to handle staff-to-student sexual misconduct complaints. Rather than just telling people off, we wanted to contribute to the solution. I would say that good practices are developing and getting better but I can’t believe we’ve been doing this for six years, and there’s still so far to go – I find that really worrying. What are we doing wrong? Are we not being as effective as we could be? How many more people need to drop out of their degrees or lose their jobs, or have extremely harrowing experiences, in order for change to be made? Work is far from done.

Why are things moving so slowly?

It’s a complicated issue, bringing together different policies like student complaints, grievance, and disciplinary processes. I think universities would rather focus on student-to-student harassment, because they can kind of say it’s not their fault. Whereas universities directly employ staff and are responsible for making sure staff do not sexually harass students. 

We’re still seeing minimisation of the problem. People say it’s not really a big problem, or it was a problem in the past. Certainly there are not as high numbers as before, but even one person being subjected to staff sexual misconduct is one too many when staff are in a position of trust and responsibility. 

And we know that it’s far more than one: the best studies we have internationally suggest that for the group most at risk of sexual misconduct from staff, which is women and postgraduate students, around 10% will be subjected to staff sexual misconduct. Say you’ve got a mid-sized university with around 5,000 postgraduate students and 2,500 of those are women: it’ll be 250 enrolled students at any one time who will have experienced harassment. Only a very small handful of those will disclose or report to the university. So of course it’s easy for universities to say it’s not a big problem because they haven’t got the data and they’re not aware of it.

What are some concrete actions that universities can take?

We’ve supported Can’t Buy My Silence, who have been campaigning for universities to pledge to not use NDAs. We’re huge fans of the campaign and we’d encourage the universities who haven’t already signed a pledge to do so. 

NDAs are a small part of the problem of silencing. In fact, most of the time universities don’t need to use NDAs, because they’re silencing students and staff earlier in the process, by not telling them what’s happening at the end of their complaint – if they even get there. Making the complaint process be so inefficient that it takes months, if not years, means people don’t get to the end of the process. 

GDPR is weaponized to make sure that no information is actually shared with the complainant in the first place. If you haven’t shared the information, you don’t need an NDA. NDAs are just one part of the mechanism being used to avoid transparency and make sure that survivors don’t speak about their experience, because if they don’t know anything, they can’t talk about anything. If we can get all universities to sign up to not use NDAs, that would be a great start.

A university can build trust with its students and staff body in terms of how it deals with complaints and reports by being as transparent as they possibly can, with both complainants and the wider university body, about what they do when they receive a complaint. There’s one university in the UK where every time they dismiss a member of staff or expel a student for sexual misconduct, they actually announce it publicly to the whole university community without any names. It’s anonymous but it sends out the message that complaints are taken seriously and that there are consequences if findings are upheld.

Read more: The 1752 Group calls for action on sexual harassment reporting

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