Widespread sexual harassment claims in UK Universities

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Charlotte Walker
Writer

According to an investigation by the Guardian, the number of reported sexual harassment incidents in UK universities are on the rise, but are considered to only represent the tip of the iceberg.

Following Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to over 100 UK universities, the investigation found that students made 169 allegations against staff from 2011 to 2017. They also found another 127 allegations from staff towards colleagues within Universities.

The publication of this research prompted a further 60 people to come forward and share their personal stories of sexual harassment within universities. One anonymous student came forward and said she felt that the policies universities have which address sexual harassment “quickly evaporate and they close ranks to protect their own.”

This feeling was echoed by the National Union of Students (NUS) women’s officer, Hareem Ghani, who said that universities are “ill-equipped to deal with instances of student-staff harassment” and went on to say that the students who report sexual violence are “often left vulnerable by University procedures.”

Though the investigation suggests that sexual harassment within universities has reached “epidemic levels”, the actual number of incidents is considered to be much greater. The senior partner of the McAllister Olivarius law firm, Dr Ann Olivarius said: “These numbers are shocking, but sadly, from our experience, are just the tip of the iceberg.”

The 1752 group was set up to target staff-student sexual harassment in universities. The co-founder Dr Anna Bull supports Olivarius’s claim, stating: “There is evidence to suggest the actual figures in the UK will be staggering.”

The investigation found that Oxford University was reported to have the highest number of sexual harassment allegations about staff from students with 21 reports received overall, however some allegations may have been duplicates between college and central administration figures. This was closely followed by Universities such as Nottingham, Edinburgh, University of the Arts London, Essex and Cambridge.

Oxford also had the highest number of staff against staff harassment claims, with 17 recorded allegations. Cambridge reported to have at least seven, followed by Portsmouth, Exeter, York and LSE.

Although these high figures may seem to reflect the universities with the worst problems, the high numbers may reflect the universities that have a more effective policy in place and represent that the staff and students feel more comfortable coming forward with their allegations.

Professor Sarah Whatmore, pro vice-chancellor of Oxford University confirmed that this is the case at Oxford, stating: “Sexual assault and harassment, whether by staff or students, will not be tolerated anywhere at Oxford. We have put the students themselves at the centre of the process, allowing them to make first disclosures at a level where they are most comfortable.”

Since the Guardian investigation was published, there have been a number of responses from other victims, equality campaigners, lawyers and politicians. Dr Anna Bull summarises: “The Guardian’s coverage over the last six months has revealed that universities are failing in their duty of care to students, and protecting staff over students.”