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Sexual abuse at English and Welsh universities ‘a public scandal’

An estimated 50,000 incidents of sexual abuse or harassment take place in universities in England and Wales every year, according to research, which accuses the sector of failing to adequately address what is “fast becoming a public scandal”.

Unsafe Spaces: Ending Sexual Abuse in Universities highlights the role of the “lad culture” in student sports clubs – especially rugby clubs – in creating a toxic atmosphere leading to sexual abuse and harassment, with abusers adopting “a pack mentality”.

It also shines a light on sexual harassment and abuse by staff, including distinguished academics, where universities can be reluctant to take action because they want to keep their star performers. In one case, a student was repeatedly raped by an eminent professor, but she felt unable report it for four years.

The study concludes that the number of students victims of sexual harassment or abuse far exceeds formal complaints made to universities, many of whose procedures for dealing with such complaints are still inadequate, according to the authors.

“When we pressed academics and university managers on their best estimate of how many students suffered sexual harassment or abuse, we found surprising agreement,” said one of the authors, John Edmonds, visiting professor at Durham Business School and former general secretary of the GMB trade union. “They believe around 15% of female students and 3% of male students are abused while at university. This equates to about 50,000 students being abused every year.”

Other estimates are far higher however. Dr Anna Bull, of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual misconduct at UK universities, said research from the US and Australia found that 40-50% of all students are subject to sexual harassment during their studies, and prevalence was likely to be the same in England.

“Sexual violence is routinely minimised and underestimated, including in higher education. Unlike in the US and Australia, where large-scale studies have been carried out to determine its prevalence, in the UK the sector has not supported such robust research.”

Edmonds and his co-author, Eva Tutchell, an educationist and former secondary school teacher, have called for a full sector-wide investigation to determine the true scale of the problem. They also called for trained specialists on campus and a renewed focus on making the safety and welfare of students a top priority.

“An environment where abusive behaviour is implicitly permitted creates anxiety and fear,” said Edmonds. “It undermines self-confidence and pollutes the university environment. With large numbers of university students currently locked down together on campus because of the coronavirus pandemic there has never been a more important time to tackle the question of student sexual abuse.”

A consultation by the Office for Students on addressing harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education was paused in March and has not been resumed, according to Bull, “suggesting that this issue is currently a low priority – but sexual violence does not stop because of a pandemic”.

Sara Khan, vice-president (liberation and equality) for the National Union of Students, said NUS research in 2018 showed two in five students experienced sexual misconduct, of which one in eight was perpetrated by staff. “Two years on from this, we would have hoped to see universities taking concrete action, and for the problem to be shrinking – however this is clearly not the case.”

Universities UK (UUK) which speaks for 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said it would be publishing guidance and recommendations on managing staff on student misconduct later this year. A spokesperson added: “All students and staff are entitled to a safe and positive experience and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study.”

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