UK universities failing to tackle 'endemic' levels of sexual violence on campus, says union

A poll found 52% did not disclose or report their experience to their employer Credit: PA

British universities and colleges are failing to tackle “endemic” levels of sexual violence on campuses with some protecting "star academics" and their reputations before victims, a union has warned.

One in 10 college and university staff have directly experienced workplace sexual violence in the past five years, a survey found.

A poll of nearly 4,000 university and college staff found more than two in three (70%) who experienced sexual violence did so as a pattern of ongoing behaviour, while 52% did not disclose or report it to their employer.

The term sexual violence refers to various sexual offences including rape, sexual assault, stalking, revenge porn, as well as a range of everyday behaviours in the online and offline world, said the University and College Union (UCU).

Early career staff and those on insecure, casualised contracts, including postgraduate researchers, were more likely to experience sexual violence, the poll suggested.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said this group – who tended to fall between being a student and an academic – were reliant on building relationships with more established members of staff for their career progression, making them “more vulnerable” to people who sought to abuse their power.

The union warned of a “vicious cycle” where senior managers at universities and colleges did not take action on sexual violence and victims subsequently lost trust in the reporting process.

One victim told the UCU’s sexual violence task group: “No disciplinary action was taken, the institution/department was only concerned with covering up their star lecturer. I was vilified and smeared so that my concerns would be dismissed.

“Literally nothing happened. I even had to share an office with him afterwards (he chose to move to a spare desk next to mine).”

One member of staff, who did not report an incident of sexual violence, said: “This was a member of the senior leadership team with a reputation of being untouchable due (to) his charm and charisma.

“The main issue in my experience is how problems with sexual violence are typically dealt with according to the status in the institution of the alleged abuser, i.e. if they are a prof(essor) with a large grant record, you may as well forget it.”

The report suggested that those experiencing sexual violence were pressured to resolve complaints informally to avoid possible reputational damage.

When asked about the culture of “star” academics in universities, and its impact on sexual violence reports from staff and students, Dr Grady said: “Unfortunately I think it is quite widespread.

“It’s a huge problem for universities to have to actually grapple and deal with because what it means is they’re going to have to start disciplining and removing people who they would otherwise be encouraged to keep and promote.”

Dr Grady added that she knew of promising young women who had had the potential for an “amazing” career in academia “completely ruined by a predatory male academic who has been protected”.

“It means these people either stay in their roles somewhere, or they get to go on elsewhere and potentially terrorise a whole new group of people over years,” she said.

The UCU is calling on universities and colleges to abandon the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with perpetrators, and develop policies to allow proceedings against alleged perpetrators to continue after they had left the institution, to reduce levels of sexual violence on campuses.

A union said institutions are often favouring 'star academics' over victims

Dr Grady said: “Ultimately, whether these are predators who specifically harass and bully their colleagues, their postgraduate researchers or their undergraduate students, or their college students, there is no place for them in education. They can ruin careers, and some of them, you know, ruin lives.”

She added: “The brave testimony from survivors should mark a turning point in the fight against sexual violence and ring in the ears of college and university leaders who have allowed sexual violence to become endemic on campus.

“The report’s findings reveal shocking levels of institutional failure and reflect a culture in which protecting the reputation of a university or college comes before delivering justice for survivors.

“Survivors say managers are often dismissive towards those reporting sexual violence, complaints processes are hardwired to frustrate claims and non-disclosure agreements are used to silence them, forcing many to leave their employment without justice.

“With practices like this, it is little wonder over half don’t report their abuse at all.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “This report and its findings make for difficult but important reading. Every case of sexual violence on campus is one too many and completely unacceptable.

“University senior management take these matters extremely seriously and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study so that no student or member of staff is subject to any form of sexual violence or misconduct.”

The UUK and the National Union of Students (NUS) have recently published a toolkit for senior leaders of best practice and practical steps to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment.

“However, while progress has been made, including in encouraging survivors to come forward and report, we know – and this report further emphasises – that there is much more to do to end all forms of harassment in higher education," the spokeswoman added.

“UUK will continue to intensify its work with the sector, including the UCU, to examine what further action we can all collectively take.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “No one should face sexual violence in the place they work. We are determined to stamp out all forms sexual harassment and abuse on campuses for both staff and students and will continue to work with sector leaders to ensure they are taking a zero-tolerance approach.

“Minister Donelan wrote to the sector in July making clear the government’s expectation that institutions must have robust procedures in place, and setting out our plans to tackle the ​misuse of Non-Disclosure Agreements – we are currently looking at what more we can do with universities to tackle this and will set out more on this is due course.”

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