What Is To Be Done About Sexual and Domestic Abuse at UK Universities?

Dr Geetanjali Gangoli, Senior Leturer and researcher in the Centre for Gender Violence Research recommends further action to eliminate gender violence within UK Universities.

The elimination of gender-based violence (GBV) is a human rights priority both internationally and domestically. The new prominence of movements such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #MeTooPhD brought to the forefront of public consciousness the prevalence of GBV and the scale of the impact on women’s everyday lives in education, the home, and the workplace. The World Health Organisation found those experiencing GBV were more than two times as likely to experience mental health issues and thus declared it “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”.

The limited existing evidence on sexual and domestic abuse at UK universities

No study has investigated domestic abuse specifically at UK universities, but there are indicators that it occurs amongst students and staff. For instance, the Office of National Statistics indicate that young adults aged 18 to 24 tend to be at higher risk for domestic abuse. Indicators for university staff can be drawn from wider studies (e.g. Hester et al., 2017; Walby and Allen, 2004), showing that approximately 20% of women and 4% of men experience domestic abuse during their lifetime.

Several studies of varying quality have assessed students’ experiences of sexual violence. Findings from these studies suggested that: for female students, 70% experienced sexual violence, and 5% rape; and for male students, 12% experienced sexual assault. The most recent study by Brook (2019) found that 56% of both male and female students surveyed experienced unwanted advances and assault.

One study on sexual violence and university staff queried students about staffs’ use of sexual violence towards them, with 41% of female and male students reporting they experienced staff sexual misconductOnly 6-8% of students who experienced sexual violence reported to the police or university, compared to an estimated 17% of victims of sexual violence in the general population.

multi-site study of the sexual violence impacts experienced by students at English campus universities found that 100% of those who had experienced sexual violence reported a negative psychological, emotional or physical health based impact. Out of these, 27% contemplated suicide or self-harm15% developed an eating disorder15% abused alcohol or drugs and 12% reported becoming more prone to, and frequent absence from university due to, illness. Additionally, 50% of those who reported being sexually assaulted indicated having experienced a negative impact on their academic performance, and 11% indicated that the progress of their studies was delayedThe Revolt Sexual Assault and Student Room (2018) study found 25% of victim-survivors changed, dropped modules, missed lectures and/or tutorials, and 16% suspended or dropped out of their degree programme.

There are no direct indicators of university staffs’ experiences and impacts of sexual violence, but inferences can be drawn from wider studies. Conducted with general samples in the UK, some studies suggest the prevalence for women may range from 20% experiencing assault or rape in their lifetime to 52% experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace since the age of 16. There is also limited information on men’s experiences. What evidence is available suggests that prevalence for men may range from 4% experiencing assault or rape in their lifetime to 9% experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace since the age of 16.

UK university responses: Ad hoc

Universities function within national and international legal frameworks. However, there are no specific legislative duties on UK universities in terms of data collection, prevention, and response akin to those under USA law, such as; Title IX 1972; the Clery Act 1990/1998; VAWA Act 1994/2013; and Campus SaVE Act 2013.

Universities have potential obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998, but only to respond appropriately when victim-survivors disclose, not to prevent the violence in the first place. Guidance has been issued by UUK for investigating “student misconduct which may also constitute a criminal offence” but this fails to recognise the complex reality of sexual violence cases and is not mandatoryUUK (2016) issued eighteen recommendations, followed by a further twelve recommendations in 2018; but again none are mandatory.

After the UUK Taskforce: Changing the Culture recommendations in October 2016 there was a flurry of ad hoc university activity stimulated by HEFCE’s (now Office for Students) Catalyst funding pilot projects, including bystander training, reporting systems, and awareness campaigns. UUK (2018) has since reported to Ministers that there were variations in developments across the sector, and there is a need for senior leadership to commit to long term planning and resourcing of interventions, as well as data collection. University responses remain patchy with the Women and Equalities Select Committee concluding that the current voluntary approach is not working. The final evaluations of the Catalyst projects are due this spring, including the findings of a survey to establish what progress has been made against the Changing the Culture recommendations.

Moving towards more consistent university responses in the UK

In March 2019, the Government Strategy Refresh ‘Ending Violence against Women and Girls’ was published and included a recommendation to generate regular data on the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment. We currently await the government response.

Speaking at a conference in March 2019, Jessica Trahar, Head of Student Welfare and Safeguarding at the Office for Students, talked of linking safeguarding around sexual violence and mental health into university Access and Participation Plans, and making funding dependent on adequate provision for victim-survivors in universities.

The Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment of women and girls in public places (2018) took this further, stating “The government should put in place legal obligations that mirror provisions in the US to link state funding with a requirement to prohibit sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and to collect and publish data on the effectiveness of institutional policies”.

While the above mentioned studies begin to shed light on the problem of gender-based violence in universities, and we support these most recent proposals, there remains overarching, fundamental gaps:

  1. Existing studies should be supplemented with a national study that: a) uses the most robust methodology, including random sampling, b) includes both staff and student victimisation, and c) incorporates domestic as well as sexual abuse.
  2. University prevention and response ‘plans’ remain ad hoc and piecemeal, primarily because universities remain relatively unaffected if they do not respond. This must be addressed at a structural level either as a statutory or mandatory
  3. At an institutional level, Universities must be guided to develop strategic responses to GBV based on evidence.
  4. An evidence based framework should be constructed for the specific context of UK universities, enabling such a comprehensive and cohesive strategic responses

Addressing the above will help to prevent the proliferation of studies that are of insufficient quality, and the development of responses with no strategic vision or little evidence base.

The Office of Students and the Home Office need to work together with Universities UK, universities, students’ unions, victim-survivors’ services, victim-survivors themselves, the criminal justice system, and academics with expertise in the field, to develop robust evidence-based responses to gender-based violence at university.

This blog was first published on the University of Bath IPR blog on 2nd May 2019 and was written with Dr Tina Skinner, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath. Dr Cassandra Jones,Postdoctorate Research Fellow in Law at the University of Exeter. Dr Rachel Fenton, Senior Lecturer in the Law School at the University of Exeter. Dr Olivia Smith, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Anglia Ruskin University and Janet Keliher, a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter. 

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