Sexual misconduct at UK universities an ‘open secret’: report

Survey by UK’s student union has found four in 10 students experienced staff sexual misconduct at least once.

University lecture hall
More than 1,800 former and current students from across the UK were surveyed about staff sexual misconduct [Michaela Rehle/Reuters]

Sexual misconduct perpetuated by university staff is an “open secret” that has become sidelined within university campuses in the UK, according to a report by the National Union of Students (NUS).

The report, released on Wednesday in conjunction with lobbying organisation The 1752 Group, is the first national survey of its kind collating data from four focus groups including former and current students from across the country.

For the report, named Power in the Academy: Staff Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education, respondents were questioned about sexual misconduct ranging from unwanted sexual remarks and groping, to serious sexual harassment such as rape and sexual assault on campus.

According to the survey, four in 10 current students have experienced at least one incident of staff sexual misconduct. A further five percent indicated that they knew of someone who had been subjected to it.

One in eight current students responded that they had been touched by a staff member in a way that made them feel uncomfortable.

Women respondents were more than twice as likely to report experiences of staff sexual misconduct with 15.6 percent of women reporting this in comparison to seven percent of male respondents. Sixty percent of respondents stated that the perpetrators were men, pointing not only to a gendered dimension of staff-to-student sexual misconduct, but also the exploitation of unequal power relationships on campus.

Only one in 10 respondents said they reported staff sexual misconduct. Ninety percent of the groups surveyed reported at least one way they felt institutions had failed them, either because they denied their experience or they did not respond “adequately”.

Culture of impunity

In the Changing the Culture report published by the NUS in November 2016, which examined violence against women, harassment and hate crime on campus, instances of student-staff misconduct were omitted.

It is this failure to examine the issue and a tendency to “gloss over” cases brought to the attention of some institutions that NUS Women’s Officer, Hareem Ghani, says points to a culture of impunity in which UK universities are deliberately turning a blind eye to what has now become normalised sexual behaviour in a “highly sexualised higher education environment”.  

Speaking to Al Jazeera, she said: “The one thing the report pinpoints is that there are no consequences to this sort of behaviour. Women have been highlighting the way they have been disproportionately affected by sexism and sexual violence on university campuses for a very long time. But it’s been allowed to go unchallenged by institutions for a while and as a result, it’s meant that it is disproportionately gendered.”

Following the case of Dr Lee Salters, who subjected former postgraduate student Allison Smith to vicious episodes of domestic violence at the University of Sussex, yet was still permitted by the university to continue teaching for a further 10 months after he was arrested, media attention has shed a glaring spotlight on the issue of staff-to-student sexual misconduct.

This has meant that some universities have felt compelled to respond as was the case in this instance. For Ghani however, such – what she called “knee-jerk” – reactions to “implement policies that don’t really have any tangible impact” are merely a ploy to save face and minimise reputational damage, as 30.9 percent of respondents reported that their institution had “suggested that their experience might affect the reputation of the institution”.

Speaking of what effect the NUS hopes the report will have and what the solutions are, she said: “What we want to come out of this report is for universities and institutions to accept responsibility rather than offloading the blame onto certain individuals.

“There’s often a tendency to outsource this problem, to say, ‘No the institution isn’t wrong. It’s one or two individuals that are wrong and so we’ll get rid of them. This is a one-off incident that doesn’t signify cultural change, or that there’s something significantly wrong with the system’. In actuality it signifies there is something wrong with the system.

“There is a vital conversation that needs to be had about what consent looks like within a higher education setting. The system is not training people up to have conversations about consent and what it looks like,” Ghani added.

Source: Al Jazeera