More work to do preventing sexual misconduct at London universities

A SWLondoner investigation has found that London universities received more than 100 allegations of sexual misconduct in each of the past three academic years.

The data, acquired from 28 London universities through FOI requests, shows a significant increase in reports in the academic year 2017/18.

Experts have said that the increased reporting of sexual misconduct at London universities is ‘encouraging’ but that more needs to be done in terms of prevention.

Professor Graham Towl, co-author of ‘Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education’, believes that the increased number of reports since 2017/18 represents a higher level of trust between students and universities.

“What is encouraging about this data is that overall as university communities we appear to be trusted more by many of our students such that they are willing to report sexual violence,” he explained.

“We still have some way to go in improving our data, but this is an encouraging start. And we need to work much harder on prevention.”

The professor of forensic psychology at Durham University also stressed the need for universities to own the issue of sexual violence, explaining that how different institutions deal with the issue varies and that some may even be in denial.

“As a sector, we have a major problem with sexual violence at universities. We need to own and address our problem,” he said.

“Across the HE sector there appears to have been a great deal of variability in the prioritisation given to the work amongst governing bodies and university executive leadership teams.

“Some may well still be in denial, this will not help students or staff, we need to change. Our failure as a sector to do so starts to point us in the direction of firmer and right touch regulation from the OfS.”

Sexual misconduct reports from 28 London universities, data acquired through FOI requests

The term ‘sexual misconduct’ includes reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. 

A possible range of reports recorded for each year is due to some universities not being able to provide exact numbers.

Dr Anna Bull, of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct at UK universities, suggests that this spike in 2017/18 is likely to be for two reasons: the MeToo movement, and additional funding made available for universities to tackle sexual misconduct.

“The MeToo movement may have catalysed people to report things that they may not have previously. This would include incidents from previous years,’ she explained.

“Secondly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, now restructured into the Office for Students, put several million pounds into a fund called ‘Catalyst’ which supported projects addressing sexual violence, harassment and hate crime at universities across England.

“Therefore, there were projects and interventions happening that may have led students to feel that it was possible to report, when this option was not visible or encouraged previously.”

It is also important to remember that these statistics are counts of reports and cannot accurately be related to the years that sexual misconduct took place. 

As Dr Bull explained: “It is crucial to remember in interpreting these figures that many, or even most people will report sexual misconduct some time after it happens – months or even years.”

“There are multiple reasons for this, including the impacts of trauma, and survivors’ worried that they will not be believed and/or fear of the perpetrator.”

Many universities also do not state in their policies whether they accept reports of sexual misconduct from alumni.

Dr Bull says that this means that it is likely that most reports would have to be made while students were still enrolled and so the 2017-18 spike could include incidents from the previous couple of years.

SWLondoner found that some cases resulted in reports to the police from students and universities.

However, there are no mandatory guidelines on how universities should investigate or record reports of sexual misconduct.

Other outcomes of reports resulted in punishment from the university.

These ranged from suspension and expulsion to writing letters of apology to victims.

At the Royal Veterinary College, one sanction for sexual misconduct was a fine of £200 which was donated to a local women’s charity, The Herts Sunflower Charity.

The Camden-based university also provided psychologist sessions for the accused as well as the victim. 

While the academic year 2019/20 was affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Bull adds that it would be wrong to assume that because lessons have moved online, incident rates have dropped. 

“Universities have remained open even if classes have moved online and as a survey by Rights of Women shows, as well as wider European research, online harassment during COVID is relatively prevalent,” she said.

Featured image: Dom Fou

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