A report by Unsafe Spaces: Ending Sexual Abuse in Universities has revealed approximately 50,000 incidents of sexual abuse or harassment takes place in universities in England and Wales each year.
In what it describes as “fast becoming a public scandal,” the report accuses universities of failing to act against such incidents, highlighting the role of “lad culture” in student sports clubs.
The report goes on to discuss the toxic atmosphere leading to sexual abuse and harassment, with abusers adopting a “pack mentality”.
The study also highlights sexual harassment and abuse by staff, with universities often reluctant to take punitive measures for fear of losing distinguished academics. In one case, a student was repeatedly raped by an eminent professor, but she felt unable report it for four years.
The study concludes that the number of student victims of sexual abuse or harassment far exceeds formal complaints received by universities. Procedures in many universities for handling such complaints are inadequate, according to authors of the report.
“When we pressed academics and university managers on their best estimate of how many students suffered sexual harassment or abuse, we found surprising agreement,” said one of the authors, John Edmonds, visiting professor at Durham Business School and former general secretary of the GMB trade union.
“They believe around 15% of female students and 3% of male students are abused while at university. This equates to about 50,000 students being abused every year.”
“They believe around 15% of female students and 3% of male students are abused while at university. This equates to about 50,000 students being abused every year”
– Report statistics
Edmonds and his co-author, Eva Tutchell, an educationist and former secondary school teacher, have made calls for a sector-wide investigation into sexual misconduct at universities.
They also called for trained specialists on campus and for a renewal of efforts to prioritise the safety and welfare of students.
This sentiment is echoed by others, who estimate higher incidents. Dr Anna Bull, of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct at UK universities, said research from the US and Australia found that 40-50% of all students are subject to sexual harassment during their studies, and prevalence was likely to be the same in England.
“Sexual violence is routinely minimised and underestimated, including in higher education. Unlike in the US and Australia, where large-scale studies have been carried out to determine its prevalence, in the UK the sector has not supported such robust research,” she said.
A consultation by the Office for Students on addressing harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education was paused in March and has not been resumed, according to Dr Bull, “suggesting that this issue is currently a low priority – but sexual violence does not stop because of a pandemic”.
Universities UK (UUK) said it will publish guidance and recommendations for managing staff on student misconduct later this year. A spokesperson added: “All students and staff are entitled to a safe and positive experience and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study.”