Universities in the United Kingdom have failed to fully investigate the vast majority of sexual misconduct complaints made against staff and students, an Al Jazeera investigation has found.
Al Jazeera sent freedom of information requests to all of the 164 universities across the UK seeking data on the total number of sexual misconduct complaints made against students and staff members between 2017 and 2020, the number of these complaints that were fully investigated and the number of cases that led to an outcome for the complainant.
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The requests were made as part of Degrees of Abuse, a series of podcasts and videos that tell the personal stories of how sexual misconduct by university staff and students has extensively affected the lives of women in academia.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has created a database with summaries and original documents sent by the universities.
“There is no regulation nationally of what standards universities have to have in place. So we’ve got reams and reams of guidance and that means that some universities might be doing really well and some might be doing very badly, but it’s very hard to tell because nobody’s monitoring it,” professor of sociology Anna Bull told Al Jazeera.
Bull is the founder of the 1752 Group, which campaigns to improve universities’ policies on sexual misconduct.
Do you have information on wrongdoing or want to share another tip? Contact Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit on +974 5080 0207 (WhatsApp/Signal), or find other ways to reach out on our Tips page.
Lack of investigation
The responses to the freedom of information requests made by Al Jazeera expose the broader scale of just how few complaints go anywhere, especially for students.
In total, 113 universities responded to Al Jazeera’s request for information, revealing 1,403 student sexual misconduct complaints were reported over the period 2017-2020.
The actual number of complaints is higher in effect, as some universities did not respond to Al Jazeera or they did not provide details about the numbers of claims, citing privacy reasons.
The documents showed 487 of 1,403 sexual misconduct complaints were fully investigated, meaning that an investigation was launched and concluded by the university.
Of those that were fully investigated, 309 resulted in no further action by the university.
That means that about 87 percent of complaints of sexual misconduct did not result in disciplinary action of any kind for the subject of the complaint.
In some cases, students and staff accused of misconduct left the university before the official investigation was completed.
In several cases where the victim filed an official police report, universities said they intended to do a full investigation pending the result of the police inquiry. However, most complaints that were dropped by the police were then not investigated by the universities.
Although many universities claim they can investigate even if police cases are dropped, some universities such as Oxford University have policies that claim if a student does not report the matter to the police, they are not obliged to investigate.
Last week, Al Jazeera revealed how two Oxford professors abused their position with sexist and drunken conduct.
Out of 164 universities, 51 also sent numbers of staff sexual misconduct complaints, revealing a total of 252 complaints made against staff.
For these, the attrition rate for complaints investigated was equally high. Only 81 out of 252 sexual misconduct complaints made against the universities’ employees were fully investigated. Of the cases investigated, 51 led to no further action.
The percentage of staff members accused of sexual misconduct who have been dismissed after the investigation is 14 percent compared with 3 percent of students accused of sexual misconduct who have been expelled.
Formal complaints of staff misconduct are low, as PhD students and early career academics told Al Jazeera they are afraid to file official complaints because of the effect this might have on their precarious employment opportunities in academia.
Even when complaints are investigated, the chances of disciplinary action being taken against the alleged perpetrators is very low.
Several institutions also cited exemptions because of privacy regulation or failed to respond at all.
‘I would not go through that again’
Universities in the UK do not have a standardised system when it comes to sexual misconduct complaints, meaning that across the responses there were varying definitions of what constituted a full investigation or appropriate penalties for the perpetrators.
The processes are considered to be so traumatising, many complainants withdraw their complaints. The standard of evidence is very high and most are unable to meet it.
The information surrounding the universities’ processes is so convoluted that many victims are too intimidated to pursue their complaints.
University of Oxford student Harriet, whose last name has been withheld for privacy reasons, told Al Jazeera that the university “as far as I’m aware, had no intention of actually investigating [her case] because I was never called for an interview”.
After making a formal complaint of sexual assault to Balliol College at Oxford University, she was told that they did not have to investigate because she did not report the assault to the police.
Another victim, Millie – who has been given a false name to protect her anonymity – told Al Jazeera about how the investigation into her complaint of sexual misconduct had been so distressing, she would not do it again.
“I would not go through that again. It was horrible being so in the dark about it all. I can completely understand why many people are not using this service because everyone I know that has been through this process has been let down just like me.”
In reply to Al Jazeera, the male student Millie accused of sexual misconduct said he was acquitted of any wrongdoing. He said after a brief consensual sexual encounter, they remained close platonic friends.
The University of Oxford told Al Jazeera that they cannot comment on individual cases but take all allegations of sexual harassment seriously.
They said if complaints are upheld they take disciplinary action where appropriate and steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff and students.