Sexual assault: UUK admits universities still have ‘long way to go’

A wave of testimonies published on Everyone’s Invited points to significant issues of assault, harassment and rape on university campuses

Numerous testimonies detailing allegations of sexual assault and rape at UK universities have been published online, prompting the sector to acknowledge “there is a long way to go in ending harassment” in higher education.

The Everyone’s Invited website has published the testimonies of victims of assault, harassment and rape. The site includes dozens of accounts of higher education students, the anonymised stories including incidences alleged to have taken place on university premises, privately-owned halls of residence and in nightclubs.

One anonymous student details their experiences with a university welfare team in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

“This fear of blame and not being believed was the reason I didn’t want the university to act on any claim I made. I just wanted their support to help me heal. I started talking to the welfare people but when they realised that another student was involved, I was told that it would have to be escalated and investigated if I chose to speak further. I found this very frustrating as I was too scared to go public and I just wanted to seek […] help.”

Another anonymous victim described how their university handled a case of sexual assault in a way that worsened their mental health.

“University did not suspend him because ‘innocent until proven guilty’ he was charged with assault to intent with a court hearing. Still no suspension. After the numerous emails I had with [vice-] chancellors etc… Not once throughout this did I see my personal tutor. Who is supposed to be there to support me. He finally got convicted with a suspended sentence. But I had to leave that university and start my third year of uni at a new one. Whilst he got to stay, still the captain of the football team, got to graduate and carry on.”

UUK will continue to support its members to change the culture and ensure universities become safer places to live, work and study
– Universities UK

The university regulator in England, The Office for Students (OfS), updated its guidance for universities in January 2020 in the wake of an investigation by the BBC that suggested that reports of rape, sexual assault and harassment at UK universities had trebled in three years.

One hundred and twenty-four universities told the corporation that they had recorded 1,436 allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault against students in 2018-19; up from 476 in 2016-17.

Commenting in January 2020, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “Too often, students say they are not getting the support they need if they suffer this unacceptable behaviour, and that reporting systems are not clear or effective.”

Researchers Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds published a study in September 2020 – Unsafe Spaces: Ending Sexual Abuse in Universities – that estimated that 50,000 incidents of sexual abuse or harassment take place in universities in England and Wales every year. The majority of these go unreported, Tutchell and Edmonds said, because students lacked faith in university complaints procedures.

Universities UK (UUK), the collective voice of 140 UK universities, said the testimonies published on the Everyone’s Invited website in recent weeks “highlights the need for universities to deal swiftly and sensitively with any incidents which are brought to their attention”.

“All students and staff should feel safe and supported throughout their time at university,” UUK continued, “free from harassment and sexual misconduct, and universities have a duty of care to provide that outcome.”

UUK this month launched a student survey in a bid to “investigate students’ experiences of violence and victimisation while studying at a UK university”. The survey is part of a UUK-commissioned project led by City University – in collaboration with academics and specialists from the universities of Surrey, De Montford, and Nat Cen – “to gather data on the nature and scale of student experiences of harassment and violence”.

The project seeks “to shine a light on students’ lived experiences; highlight the scale and nature of the violence students encounter; [and] develop evidence-led improvements to university policies and support.”

In a statement released today, UUK said, “there is a long way to go in ending harassment for good in higher education”.

The organisation established a taskforce in 2015 in response to demands from then-universities minister Jo Johnson over the mishandling of cases of violence and sexual harassment against women, hate crimes and other forms of harassment.

A 2016 report by the taskforce – Changing the Culture – set out new sector guidelines on handling complaints and allegations. A UUK survey of universities in 2019 indicated improvements in the wake of the Changing the Culture report but suggested that a lack of funding was an impediment to progress.

A spokesperson for UUK said today: “A survey assessing progress two years on from the publication of UUK’s harassment taskforce found universities are taking action to address some of the issues, but that there is a long way to go in ending harassment for good in higher education. UUK will continue to support its members to change the culture and ensure universities become safer places to live, work and study.”

Read more: NSS will not ask students if they are ‘satisfied’, OfS announces

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