Time to get real about sexual assault on campus

Originally published on wonkhe

As the new academic year begins, on queue, old tropes about boozy students tumble through the press and social media. Even the reports this week about universities turning away from the traditional heavy partying in freshers week feel dated – most of us in the students’ union sector having been doing that sort of thing for years.

As well as booze, the great British press has always had a ‘thing’ about students and sex – prurient stories about students turning to sex work to find their studies are as old as either universities, or sex work. But in recent months the stories have taken an altogether darker turn, with red tops and broadsheets of all political persuasions starting to cover the culture of sexual harassment and assault on campus that is starting to be uncovered.

Citing examples from the US and research from NUS, reports have argued that ‘lad culture’ is pervading UK campuses and in turn is allowing a culture of rape and sexual assault to develop unchallenged. Some tap back into the old tropes of boozy freshers weeks and victim blaming; some bemoan the apparent ‘curtailment of free speech’ that consent workshops supposedly represent. But others cover deeply worrying victims’ stories of attempting to complain about rape or sexual assault and being met with the dead hand of university bureaucracy, or being forced to go on a hiding to nothing via the police.

Get away from the press stories and the stats are quite stark. Research from NUS found that of those students identifying as women, 68% of respondents had experienced some kind of sexual harassment in and around their institution, including groping, flashing and unwanted sexual comments; and one in seven had experienced serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student. Numerous other studies back up the claims. Yet the sector itself seems to have been curiously silent on the issue, with only OIA boss Rob Behrens putting his head usefully above the parapet to bemoan the lack of obvious places to report harassment and poor staff training.

Silent largely, until now. First the Russell Group’s Wendy Piatt appears in the press to defend their record: “Our institutions take the issue of any kind of harassment, abuse or violence against students extremely seriously… they have policies and procedures in place to deal with these matters, which are a key part of their responsibility to ensure safety and wellbeing”. Then Nicola Dandridge of UUK writes that the representative body is “undertaking work to see whether there is more we can do to support universities in this area and share best practice” (whilst of course being careful to deploy the catch-all excuse; “this is not an issue confined to university campuses”).

What Wendy, Nicola and others in the sector don’t major on in their defence of their treatment of victims is how they treat alleged perpetrators within their structures. The problem is, when there is an incident, “many students don’t even make it to the reporting stage because of the lack of clarity around the complaints and disciplinary procedures available to victims of sexual harassment and assault by universities”, says NUS’ Women’s officer Susuana Amoah.

This weekend in The Sunday Times, Secretary of State Sajid Javid announced that he’s taking action too – ordering a crackdown by writing to university vice chancellors “demanding they set up a taskforce to investigate … sexual and verbal assault… against women on campus and develop a code of practice for dealing with incidents”. His letter to VCs includes a code of practice on cultural change, a kitemark scheme, and deep links to stuff like the Home Office Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. So far, so good.

But embedded in the Javid piece is a warning about how far all of this will go: “If a university official has an incident that they’ve either heard about, or someone’s come to them in confidence and they think that it’s a criminal act, I think absolutely of course they should encourage that person, or in other ways get the authorities involved”, he says, reflecting the dated and inappropriate consensus on how to treat incidents on campus. Right now if you go to a university with a complaint of sexual assault or rape, in most cases their immediate response is already to require you to go to the police. This attitude is based on universities still basing policies on The Zellick Report – guidelines written in 1994 by law professor Graham Zellick, which advised universities against investigating things that could be criminal offences.

Students might therefore wonder why their university’s discipline regulations cover things like forgery, drug possession, physical assault of another student or destruction of property despite being criminal, but when it comes to sexual assault it’s ‘go to the police, or we won’t listen’. They might wonder why a university would discipline a graffiti artist on the balance of probabilities but would leave a date rapist free to roam unless a ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ test was met. And it’s no wonder young women fighting the system are disgusted that a 20 year old report is still given so much credence, given that it predates the Human Rights Act, the Equalities Act, and much significant national and local research about the prevalence of the problem.

Crucially, when universities fail to monitor and investigate rape allegations, they shift the problem to the police (and we all know how effective they are). Organisations like End Rape on Campus argue that this approach dissuades women from reporting assaults, likely makes them think that they are going to be vulnerable to assaults and makes them think they have no redress against their attacker.

University administrations reasonably argue that investigating cases properly would require extra resource, and are of course keen to avoid the bad publicity that such cases would being in an era where painting the campus as a hermetically sealed, super safe academic theme park is crucial to recruitment. But over in the US a head of steam of victims’ stories and university hand-wringing led to Title IX – clarifications on equalities legislation led by President Obama that eventually forced US universities to take responsibility for the protection of women, investigate cases seriously, as well as ensuring prevention programmes were the norm not the exception where the standard of proof is like that used in other discipline cases.

It would be nice to think that those who lead the UK’s universities could use their considerable privilege, academic fire power and student debt-funded salaries to respond to Javid by getting beyond merely designing ever-better services for ever-more victims – taking a lead on adapting Title IX and revising Zellick themselves; creating safer campuses through the clear-out of perpetrators. Despite Javid’s intervention, I fear we’d be wise to not hold our breath.

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