Image: Meredith Nutting / Flickr
Image: Meredith Nutting / Flickr

#MeToo movement reaches an all-time high across UK universities

The #MeToo movement, which sees victims of sexual abuse speak out on their experiences and abusers, has spread to UK universities this year. Institutions are now pushed to find new methods of tackling sexual assault, and in some cases take matters into their own hands.

In 2018, the movement reached an all-time high after a survey was launched in January by Revolt Sexual Assault, in partnership with The Student Room. They found that 62% of the 4,500 respondents across 153 universities had experienced sexual violence.

Two months later, Universities UK (UUK) reported that universities have made “significant but variable” progress in dealing with student-on-student sexual misconduct. Freedom of Information (FoI) requests sent to 132 universities discovered that there were 1,953 reports of sexual assault committed by students and staff at universities in the past seven years.

According to the UUK, 732 cases were investigated, and 74 staff were temporarily banned or suspended. 62 universities offered training on sexual consent, which was mandatory in six institutions. The University of Cambridge recorded the most incidents since 2011, which was 215 reports of harassment by student and staff.

Responding to the findings, 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 UUK survey was followed by a National Union of Students (NUS) report published in April, regarding sexual assault between students and staff. Over 40% of the 1,839 respondents experienced sexualised behaviour, 65 respondents suffered from non-consensual sexual contact, and 15 were sexually assaulted or raped.

90% of respondents said they were “let down” during investigations. After facing sexual harassment, almost 20% developed mental health problems, 16% avoided going to certain parts of campus, and 13% felt that they were “unable to fulfil work roles at their institution”.

At a time when the world is waking up to the ways in which sexual harassment and abuse are endemic across many institutions, it is time for the higher education sector to take this issue seriously

– Dr. Anna Bull

Prior to 2018, sexual harassment in higher education has been a recurring topic over the years. In 2017, The Guardian found that there had been 169 cases of sexual harassment between academic and non-academic staff, and 127 cases between colleagues since 2011. The data came from FoI requests sent to 120 universities.

Five of the universities compensated victims. Three universities admitted to using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or confidentiality clauses in settlements. The University of Oxford received the most reports of sexual assault, with central administration receiving a total of 28 cases from students and staff.

136 staff-on-student cases and 109 staff-on-staff cases were investigated by universities. 86 staff left their university or changed jobs following allegations of sexual assault from students or colleagues. The University of Edinburgh and the London School of Economics had the highest number of staff that left, which was five each.

The Guardian said that the numbers may be higher than the data suggests, since respondents have said that they were deterred from reporting their experiences, in fear of the impact that their education or career may receive.

Commenting on the trend of sexual assault cases over the years, Dr. Ann Olivarius, senior partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius – which specialises in representing sexual abuse victims in UK and US universities – said that sexual harassment has reached “epidemic levels”.

She said: “Most universities have no effective mechanism to stop staff from pressuring students into sexual relationships…Those in charge are often colleagues who have many incentives not to intervene.”

She called for a “mandatory national system” based on the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act, and “swift termination with a public statement and a mandated report to a central UK registry” in case of sexual assault by staff against students.

Dr. Olivarius also addressed the issue that many alleged victims did not make formal complaints, withdrew allegations, or accepted informal settlements, since “the university’s chief concern is to downplay any wrongdoing and protect its own reputation.”

Respondents have said that they were deterred from reporting their experiences, in fear of the impact that their education or career may receive

By “keeping the whole thing quiet”, she refers to NDAs, or “gagging orders”, which are legal contracts that ensure involved parties do not disclose confidential information.

The use of NDAs by universities to protect reputations allows sexual offenders to change institutions and continue to perpetrate sexual assault, according to Alison Phipps, a campaigner against institutional sexism in several universities.

In 2016, Professor Sara Ahmed, former director of the centre for feminist research at Goldsmiths, University of London, resigned from her post to protest against the university’s failure to address sexual harassment, including their use of NDAs.

She said: “Confidentiality agreements are not necessarily used intentionally to silence students who have been harassed by staff or the staff who support them. But that is the effect. If no one speaks about the cases then no one speaks about what the cases revealed.”

In response to the use of NDAs and increasing sexual harassment cases, the Department for Education said that universities “must have clear policies” to “ensure students do not face harassment of any kind”. They added that students can report to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if their complaint is not fulfilled.

Dr. Anna Bull, which co-founded the 1752 Group that pioneered an “End NDAs Campaign” in 2018, said: “Universities do not currently have adequate procedures in place to protect students and deal with perpetrators, and students find themselves powerless to do anything about staff who abuse their position.”

“At a time when the world is waking up to the ways in which sexual harassment and abuse are endemic across many institutions, it is time for the higher education sector to take this issue seriously,” she added.

The 1752 Group now works with the NUS to investigate sexual assault in universities. After it was found that 33% of UK universities did not have a policy on staff-student relationships, the NUS began conducting surveys of sexual misconduct by staff in higher education in November 2017.

The surveys are implemented by the NUS women’s campaign. Hareem Ghani, the NUS women’s officer, said: “For too long, these problems have been at best sidelined and at worst silenced by institutions.

“We need to talk about the open secrets that plague academia, to challenge cultures of entitlement and stop abuses of power wherever they happen.”

After years of institutions saying that consent workshops were unnecessary, dismissing “exaggerated” claims of sexual assault, and shifting responsibility, Ghani said this year that 2017 was “a real catalyst for people looking at misogyny on campus”.

We need to talk about the open secrets that plague academia, to challenge cultures of entitlement and stop abuses of power wherever they happen

– Hareem Ghani

For example, the University of Warwick’s student union (SU) launched #WeGetConsent in November 2017, which aims to highlight the need for consent and prevent sexual violence.

#WeGetConsent also launched an online module on consent, bystander intervention, and more. In addition to #WeGetConsent, the SU provides advice for anyone affected by sexual violence. The Intervention Initiative programme was piloted in 2016 to increase the likelihood of “bystanders” intervening to stop sexual assault.

The University has also partaken in the “Ask for Angela” campaign, which uses posters, often placed in bathrooms, to notify uncomfortable customers that they can ask for help from staff on duty. The Wellbeing Support Services has counselling services and a pathway for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

Other universities have taken similar measures. The University of Kent’s SU has been funded by the police to train staff in bars and venues in Canterbury to intervene in case of harassment. SU president Ruth Wilkinson gave an example of how a young woman approached McDonald’s staff when she was being followed in June, and the staff on duty got her a “special safe taxi”.

Katia Baudon, a third year English and French law student at Kent, told The Guardian that her experiences with sexual assault galvanised her into helping other women that were “suffering in silence”.

She believes that the first step to be taken by universities is to “stamp out ‘lad culture’”, which “fosters a climate in which physical attacks are more likely and where women feel disempowered”.

Rachel McHale, a first-year French and German student and women’s officer at Magdalene College in Cambridge, shared similar opinions: “You hear laddish, misogynist banter so often that you become used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK.”

In February 2018, Cambridge admitted there was a “significant problem” in the university with sexual harassment after 173 complaints were received in nine months.

The number of complaints surged after an anonymous reporting system was introduced at the university in May 2017, as part of the “Breaking the Silence” campaign. Other universities have made “bystander workshops” mandatory, such as the University of West England (UWE).

In addition to the workshops which will be launched in September this year, UWE has called Kieran McCartan, a criminology professor, to work with students that have perpetrated sexual harassment.

UWE is one of many other universities that have pledged to investigate and take action against sexual offenders when victims do not want police involvement.

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