Sexual harassment: who is in charge at UK universities?

Who in the UK is trying to reduce cases of sexual discrimination and assault in our universities? Worryingly, it appears that no one is really in charge, and very little is being done.

Less than half of the UK’s elite Russell Group universities are monitoring cases of sexual violence against students, whilst one in five of the universities admit that they do not even give guidelines to students about how to report these allegations to the university or police. Seven out of the 24 Russell Group universities haven’t established protocols to record allegations of rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment. If they aren’t even collecting data, they can’t get a sense of the problem, let alone try to reduce it. 

But all indications are it’s a serious one. Recent research carried out by the NUS reveals that 37% of female students have received unwanted sexual advances at university, and 60% of those surveyed said they were not aware of any codes of conduct implemented by their university or student union that prohibit or tackle sexual harassment.  

University students in the United States also suffer from sexual harassment and assault, but have the benefit of a law known as Title IX, which requires universities to have systems for monitoring, reducing and punishing this kind of conduct, on penalty of losing government funding.  Many universities flatly prohibit sexual relationships between staff and students.  They also have programmes to educate first-year students and make sure students know how to report complaints.  President Obama has made it a priority to combat sexual harassment and assault on campus, and in 2014 launched the ‘It’s on Us’ campaign aiming to Recognise that non-consensual sex is sexual assault, to Identify situations in which sexual assault may occur, to Intervene where consent has not or importantly cannot be given and to Create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported and not chastised.

The American government is encouraging universities to convey to students the idea that silence, or a lack of resistance, does not constitute a person’s consent to sexual contact – that only “yes means yes”.  There have been numerous instances of sexual assault involving British university students where the victim was intoxicated and incapable of fighting off the perpetrator, or of giving any meaningful consent to sexual contact. In a number of these cases victims have reported that a culture of ‘victim blaming’ is present at their university, and that poorly trained staff are ill-equipped to assist in documenting what occurred or making complaints to police or university officials.

We deal with many Title IX cases in the US.  A current case against the University of California – Los Angeles involves two graduate students who were sexually harassed by a professor, made a Title IX complaint, and found it was “swept under the rug.”  The professor has been teaching at UCLA ever since the University learned of the sexual harassment allegations; the students feel they cannot return to campus for of fear of continued harassment.  We have other cases involving sexual assault and harassment at universities around the country.

There’s been a lot more attention in the news lately to the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence at British universities, which is a good start. An important next step would be for universities to acknowledge they are under a legal duty to take action to protect female students, as was recently argued in a briefing by Violence Against Women. UK universities need to work together and assume responsibility for setting up protocols to support victims and allow them to informally or formally make a complaint, and provide support throughout the process.  This would be an important step – along with serious programmes to educate male and female students about consent, that only “yes means yes,” and how to intervene if they see their friends getting into dangerous situations – to make a dent in this persistent problem.