Last week a Freedom of Information (FOI) investigation made by The Guardian revealed high levels of staff-student sexual harassment on UK campuses.
According to the FOI report, there were 169 allegations of harassment, misconduct and gender violence by university staff at 120 UK universities, between the years of 2011 and 2017. A further 127 allegations were made by staff about other colleagues.
Speaking to The Student on this issue, Jess Husbands, Vice President Societies and Activities (VPSA) at the Students’ Association argues that not only is staff-student sexual harassment morally deplorable, it can mean that education is “simply not accessible for all […] there are cases of survivors having to study remotely because their harasser remains in post at the institution.”
Edinburgh was reported to have seen nine allegations between 2011 and 2017, the third highest in the country. However, these statistics may be much lower than the amount of harassment that goes on unreported, not just at Edinburgh, but at universities across the UK. Sexual harassment has become an increasing problem in universities as most have no effective mechanism to stop staff pressuring students into sexual relationships, and there is no consequential standard practice to help students who do come forward.
The FOI revealed that many victims felt discouraged from making official complaints and withdrew their allegations. Similarly, many held the fear of negatively impacting their education or careers.
Husbands expressed her hope that “the work we’ve been doing through the No One Asks For It campaign, and by releasing more guidance on reporting incidents, will mean that a higher proportion of sexual harassment cases are reported.”
The No One Asks For It campaign is a collaborative program between the Students’ Association, the University and the Sports Union. Posters have been placed around the University and the campaign hopes to “let students know that sexual harassment in any form is unacceptable.”
Beyond this campaign the University is now running an Active Bystander training programme to equip students with knowledge on how to intervene in problematic situations.
Policies on staff-student relationships appear very unclear, and there is a suggestion that these relationships are not monitored. 32 per cent of universities appear to have no student-staff relationship policy at all and legal experts who examined more than 30 policies found that none actually forbade such relationships, with only a few discouraging them.
Campaigners are now calling for a mandatory national system to tackle this prevalent issue which appears to have become endemic.
Nonetheless, as Husbands states; “We all have a responsibility to take a stand against this kind of behaviour; sign up for the active bystander training, read up on the issue, know where someone should go if they want guidance [The Advice Place], and learn how to challenge problematic behaviour.”
Following the FOI report, many spokespeople have come forward from various universities stating that they will start to address the situation more seriously. Moreover, the National Union of Students has revealed that it will now launch its own national survey into sexual misconduct.
We need to “continue to tighten up policy, procedure and guidance around reporting mechanisms” argues Husbands, and ensure the university has “transparent policies and clear steps so that those who wish to formally report can do so knowing exactly what the process is.”
Image: Moyan Brenn