Sexual harassment “epidemic levels” in UK universities
300 claims against staff have been made in six years, but victims and lawyers say those are just tip of iceberg.
Sexual harassment misconduct and gender violence by university staff are at epidemic levels in the UK, investigation suggests.
Freedom of information (FoI) requests sent to 120 universities found that students made at least 169 such allegations against academic and non-academic staff from 2011-12 to 2016-17. At least another 127 allegations about staff were made by colleagues.
But scores of alleged victims have told that they were dissuaded from making official complaints, and either withdrew their allegations or settled for an informal resolution.
Many others said they never reported their harassment, fearful of the impact on their education or careers. This suggests that the true scale of the problem is far greater than the FoI figures reveal.
“These numbers are shocking, but sadly, from our experience, are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Ann Olivarius, senior partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius. “Sexual harassment of students by staff members has reached epidemic levels in British universities. Most universities have no effective mechanism to stop staff from pressuring students into sexual relationships, and when it happens, any sort of disciplinary action is pretty much nonexistent. Those in charge are often colleagues who have many incentives not to intervene…!
“Young women are often terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint about a staff member. So often, when they do, the university’s chief concern is to downplay any wrongdoing and protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.”
Anna Bull, set up to address staff-student sexual harassment in higher education, said: “There is evidence to suggest that the actual figures in the UK will be staggering. The Association of American Universities undertook a detailed survey of sexual assault and sexual misconduct in 2015 (student-student and staff-student). Surveys were completed on 27 campuses, with 150,072 students responding. The survey found reporting rates for sexual harassment – staff and student – [were] 7.7%, and only 28% of even the most serious incidents are reported to an organisation or agency.”
Oxford University reported the highest number of allegations against staff by students, with 11 received by its central administration and 10 by colleges – though it said there may have been duplication between college and central administration figures. It was followed by Nottingham with 10, Edinburgh with nine, University of the Arts London (UAL) and Essex with seven and Cambridge with at least six..!
Legal experts and campaigners have cautioned that universities reporting a high number of allegations and investigations are not necessarily those with the worst problems. Indeed, higher figures might reflect that procedures there are more effective..!
A University of Essex spokesman said: “We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment and have robust procedures in place for students and staff to report instances of sexual harassment.”
A University of Edinburgh spokeswoman said: “We recognise that, on occasion, there will be legitimate complaints that individuals wish to raise and we actively encourage the reporting of concerns and maintain an effective complaints procedure for that purpose.”