Credit: Dorota Dziki

UCU report finds sexual violence is ‘commonplace’ in higher education

By Lucy Dunn

The 4,000-participant report mapped patterns of sexual violence over the last five years.

The UCU sexual violence task group finds that 10% of survey participants of almost 4,000 respondents have “directly experienced workplace sexual violence in the past five years”, and 70% of these respondents experienced it as “an ongoing pattern of behaviour”. Those most at risk of workplace sexual violence included staff on non-permanent contracts, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ staff. 

13 UCU members carried out the project which focused on staff who are represented by the UCU, and as such the report did not focus on student-student gender-based violence (GBV), although did include instances involving postgraduate students who were also graduate teaching assistants, as well as postgraduate researchers.

The report found that sexual violence in tertiary education is “commonplace”, with 39% of survey participants reporting their experiencing of sexual violence directly, or indirectly, as a witness, or as a confidante to a victim, across the last five years. The majority of survivors (49%) were assaulted by a colleague. 18% were assaulted by a manager, 10% by a line manager, 14% by a student, and 9% had not specified. Over half of survey respondents didn’t tell their employers about their abuse.

The sexual violence report found that, for 70% of participants, sexual violence followed a sustained involving a range of acts and behaviours. A selection of these behaviours included unwanted “derogatory comments” relating to a person’s appearance or clothing, “leering” and suggestive gestures or remarks, physical contact (e.g. unnecessary touching), and unwelcome sexual advances, propositions or demands.

“For 70% of participants, sexual violence followed a sustained involving a range of acts and behaviours.”

The UCU Scotland President quoted the report on social media, saying: “Problems with sexual violence are typically dealt with according to the status in the institution of the alleged abuser, i.e. if they are a professor with a large grant record, you may as well forget it.”

Becca Harrison, a former lecturer at Glasgow University, said: “[The report] makes for grim reading – 10% of respondents experienced sexual violence in the year prior to the survey… It is endemic. And, as you’d expect, sexual violence is most common along intersecting lines of oppression, with women, LGBTQ+, people of colour, casualised staff and so on most likely to be affected. It tracks with existing studies about student experiences of sexual violence on campuses in the UK.”

The UCU report recommends that employers should take a number of actions to help prevent sexual violence and gender-based violence in the workplace. These include increasing transparency for survivors of violence, changing employment patterns and reducing casualisation, and creating a more efficient means to pursue proceedings against perpetrators even after they have left the institution. The UCU Task Force also suggested that the UCU should withhold “at least some forms of representation” from perpetrators, and that offering guidance and support for both survivors and union reps against further legal proceedings led by accused perpetrators was advised.

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the UCU, said: “The report of UCU’s sexual violence task group attempts to challenge and address the problem of sexual violence in [further and higher education]… We’re indebted to the many survivors who took part in the group’s research and entrusted us with their experiences.”


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