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Universities slammed for “woefully inconsistent” response to sexual assault

An investigation into how universities respond to reports of sexual assault and misconduct have revealed massive discrepancies in how cases are managed, sparking criticisms from activists and politicians alike, with Labour MP Lucy Powell branding the process “woefully inconsistent.”

The Guardian investigation, which built on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to 132 universities across the UK, found that many institutions had not carried out the reforms to support and protect victims of sexual assault, as recommended by a Universities UK (UUK) task force in October 2016.

While the UUK called for an “effective centralised process for recording incidents,” The Guardian found that many universities were only able to disclose formal complaints, complaints against staff, complaints against students, or data for certain years due to how the information had been managed.

The FOIs revealed at least 1,953 reports of sexual misconduct in the last seven years, including 213 in which the alleged perpetrator’s identity had not been recorded. Of these, they found 732 investigations into the reports of misconduct; 54 members of staff had been suspended and 20 banned from teaching in the last 7 years, though these measures were usually temporary.

The investigation found that 62 universities (less than half of those contacted) offered training on sexual consent, and that this was only mandatory at six institutions.

Many institutions had not carried out the reforms to support and protect victims of sexual assault

With 218 reported incidents, Cambridge disclosed the highest number of alleged sexual misconduct since 2011, with 128 of these being reported in the last nine months — after the University launched a new system allowing for anonymous disclosures. Durham saw the second highest number, with 88 reports in the last seven years.

The majority of allegations were made against students; 1,113 compared to 264 against members of staff.

Meanwhile, a recently published survey of 1,535 current and 303 former students, run by the National Union of Students (NUS) and 1752 Group, found that 41% had experienced unwelcome advances or assault from university staff.

These range from sexual comments and inappropriate touching to rape, with women twice as likely to experience this behaviour. In more than 60% of cases, respondents said the perpetrator was a man.

In a report released last Wednesday on the progress since their 2016 taskforce, the UUK said that results were encouraging but that more needed to be done, particularly concerning race- or hate-motivated crimes and harassment.

Labour MP and education select committee member Lucy Powell was more critical: “Given all the exposure and the UUK taskforce, you would have thought it would have been a higher priority to get an exact picture of what’s happening across campuses.

“It’s very disappointing that very little progress seems to have been made. Clearly the requirements on universities need strengthening. The government does need to provide clear signals on its expectations.”

NUS womens’ officer Hareem Ghani added: “The confusion in the figures reflects the continued murkiness in how institutions record incidents, and the clear failings in their response. Universities can no longer plead ignorance: sexual violence on campuses is still at crisis point and they must act now.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ghani criticised the “woefully low” number of reports being investigated: “The one thing the report pinpoints is that there are no consequences to this sort of behaviour. Women have been highlighting the way they have been disproportionately affected by sexism and sexual violence on university campuses for a very long time. But it’s been allowed to go unchallenged by institutions for a while and as a result, it’s meant that it is disproportionately gendered.

The confusion in the figures reflects the continued murkiness in how institutions record incidents, and the clear failings in their response

– Hareem Ghani, NUS womens’ officer

“There’s often a tendency to outsource this problem, to say, ‘No the institution isn’t wrong. It’s one or two individuals that are wrong and so we’ll get rid of them. This is a one-off incident that doesn’t signify cultural change, or that there’s something significantly wrong with the system.’ In actuality it signifies there is something wrong with the system.”

Universities minister Sam Gyimah commented: “We encourage institutions to take a proactive response to tackle sexual harassment, including ensuring that students feel confident and able to report any issues.”

The University of Warwick advises students who have experiences sexual harassment or assault to report this to the police and the Blue Sky Centre (a sexual assault referral centre) for immediate help. The Students’ Union also recommends contacting its Advice Centre or Wellbeing Support Services.

Support is also available from the Coventry Rape and Sexual Assault Centre (CRASAC), located behind the Transport Museum.


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