UK students should be able to live free from sexual harassment

The NUS Hidden Marks Report, published in 2010, demonstrates the shocking frequency with which female students in the United Kingdom are exposed to sexual violence, sexual harassment and stalking. The report found that one in seven women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault, and over two-thirds had experienced some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment. These events are not trivial: they can seriously hurt women’s ability to participate fully in education and flourish in their later lives. And all too often, universities wash their hands of these incidents, suggesting they don't have the authority to act and should leave it to the police.

But in fact universities are legally obligated to act to keep women students safe. A briefing published by the Coalition to End Violence Against Women outlines the legal responsibilities of universities as public bodies. Under the Public Sector Equality Duty, universities must advance equality of opportunity for women when they decide on their policies and practices relating to bullying, harassment and other types of violence. Similarly, the Human Rights Act places  a duty on public sector bodies to protect people from breaches of their rights.  For universities, this means the right to life, the right to an education, and the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment.

What does this mean in practice? It means that in their policies and in their actions, universities must heed the needs of female students and are legally accountable if they don’t. Students can sue universities if they can establish a breach of the Human Rights Act or of the Public Sector Equality Duty, and collect money damages if they succeed.

However, I often speak to students in the UK who don't understand that they have these rights. Universities are not investigated or penalised for failing to treat their students on equal terms. Violent or offensive conduct, like groping, sexist remarks or inappropriate advances from professors or other students, has become a part of the background noise of women's experience of higher education. This needs to stop.

In the United States, where I also practise law, the rights of women students are codified in Title IX, which forbids universities from discriminating on the basis of sex. It has been applied to all areas of the student experience, including sexual harassment, after the landmark case Alexander v. Yale (1978), in which I was a plaintiff.  If a university fails to properly respond to a student's complaint, it can be investigated by the federal government and is also liable to pay damages to the student. Legal action against the university has the dual benefit of helping victims rebuild their lives and placing pressure on the universities to improve their responses to similar issues in the future.    

There’s a thriving movement to improve the treatment of women in American universities.  Organisations like Know Your IX help students understand their rights, and high-profile protestors like Emma Sulkowicz are trying to bring attention to the flaws in how universities respond to these incidents. President Obama set up a dedicated task force to find new policy solutions to the campus sexual assault epidemic, which recently published its proposals.  These include the potential for universities to be fined up to 1% of their annual operating budget if they fail to abide by Title IX guidelines. Increasingly, students are using the courts to keep universities accountable to national legal standards.

We need a similar movement in the UK: students should know that they have the right to an equal education, unmarred by the consequences of sexual violence and sexual harassment. This kind of behaviour should be properly investigated and dealt with by universities. If they fail to do so, universities should be held accountable by the government, or subject to civil suits by those harmed.  The Human Rights Act and the Equality Act exist to defend the rights of our citizens, including students - and it will benefit all of us if they are enforced.