Credit: @Emilytest12 on Twitter

Charity calls on University of Glasgow to sign up to gender-based violence prevention charter

By Kimberley Mannion

Fiona Drouet, who set up EmilyTest after losing her daughter who was subjected to gender-based violence, talks to The Glasgow Guardian about the shortcomings of GBV prevention at Scottish universities.

Fiona Drouet set up the Scottish Government-funded charity EmilyTest in 2016 following the tragic death of her daughter Emily, after she was subjected to a campaign of gender-based violence from a fellow student at the University of Aberdeen. Since then, the charity has created the world’s first Gender-based violence charter for universities and colleges, known as the ‘Emily Test’.    

The charter’s creation involved focus groups with students and graduates across Scotland as well as panels of experts. It has two tiers: passing the Emily Test means the institution meets minimum standards: “would your institution have saved Emily’s life?”, and an excellence level, which will be awarded to institutions which can answer the question “how could your institution have helped Emily not just to survive, but to thrive?” effectively. Fiona sat down with The Glasgow Guardian to discuss why she wants to see the University of Glasgow engage with the charter.

The idea of the charter was born as a way to impartially test how seriously an institution is taking GBV, and the quality of its care. “If the charter becomes a mark of quality, maybe other things will matter when choosing an institution”, says Fiona, who didn’t have the chance to consider factors outside employment prospects and course satisfaction when her daughter chose to attend the University of Aberdeen. 

Fiona made clear in her discussion with The Glasgow Guardian the urgency with which she believes the issue of shortcomings on GBV prevention in universities must be addressed, and the need for institutions to make it a priority: “All the things going wrong I believe could be prevented but we need to just stop, recentre and focus on this. We can’t just keep sticking a plaster on one part, sticking a plaster on another part – it needs to be a coordinated, measured approach.”

The Scottish Government worked closely with Fiona and her team to create the charter. Minister for Higher Education at the time, Shirley-Anne Sommerville MSP, stated that all universities should engage with the charter, and this recommendation is maintained by the current minister, Jamie Hepburn MSP. 

When she began working with the Scottish Government on the charter, Fiona wanted to know whether Emily’s was an isolated case or if similar patterns could be seen across higher education in Scotland. She soon discovered that the same institutional failures which let Emily down and which could have saved her life, came up time and time again. She recalls saying to Somerville MSP that she kept waiting for someone to tell her she was “getting it wrong and the problem was in fact not so acute”, but the minister replied that she was in fact absolutely right – that “it is wrong, it needs to change and it’s not good enough.” Following initial discussions, Somerville included the issue in her letter of guidance to the Scottish Funding Council, who then made it a condition for universities to evidence GBV prevention or else face a funding cut. 

Despite the Scottish Government’s endorsement of the need for the charter, only four of Scotland’s universities have so far committed to the EmilyTest: Aberdeen, Strathclyde, St Andrew’s and Dundee, though none have yet been awarded the charter. 

Fiona told The Glasgow Guardian that EmilyTest has had conversations with the University of Glasgow, which has expressed an interest in implementing the training the charity can offer, but were not ready to engage with the charter, stating that they were waiting on Morag Ross KC’s report into GBV at the institution and to first address some action points brought to light in this. 

The Ross report was published on 16 December, 14 months after it was commissioned. The University of Glasgow accepted all but one of its 16 recommendations in full, many of which pertain to the EmilyTest. Some of the universities who have engaged with EmilyTest have moved to appoint a specific GBV officer. The Ross report suggests that the University of Glasgow appoint a “single investigating officer”, however this is the only recommendation to which it has not committed fully. 

When conducting research for the charter, Fiona found one of the most common failures in institutions that led to survivors being let down was departments not talking to each other – it was common to see one department having information about a perpetrator or a victim, and none of it joining up with intelligence from other areas of the institution. This was a problem highlighted at the University of Glasgow by the Ross report, which stated that responses to reports of GBV were “relatively informally coordinated”, and that vital information being shared was dependent on staff from different departments having good working relationships with each other. 

EmilyTest is also coordinating consent modules to be implemented in universities already signed up, similar to that which is required of incoming students to take at the University of St Andrews before matriculation. The concept of mandatory consent training was discussed in the Ross Report but it concluded that this should not be compulsory for students. The Student Representative Council (SRC) at UofG already has a consent course available on Moodle, which students are “expected” to complete but can opt out on a no questions asked basis. The SRC believes completion should be compulsory, except in circumstances such as previous trauma. Morag Ross KC came to her conclusion after proposing a range of questions: whether it may make incoming students “feel intimidated or overly anxious” about sexual violence, whether the module should also be mandatory for mature students, and whether if GBV training should be mandatory, so too should training on other issues students face like drug and alcohol abuse or racism. The tendency of institutions to promote awareness campaigns is also not properly thought through, since we know freshers week is the highest risk time for being subjected to GBV, says Fiona: “We need to move it upstream and engage with these students before they come onto campus, and there are not many institutions doing that right now at all.” 

Students and staff not being equipped to deal with GBV reports was something Fiona found across Scotland’s universities when creating the charter, and Glasgow was no exception to this, as detailed in the Ross report. In particular, the strain on students holding positions in the unions was underlined, who do not have the necessary training nor time to deal with such complex and distressing incidents. 

Of the vast majority of Scottish universities yet to engage, Fiona told The Glasgow Guardian: “I am yet to hear a reasonable, justifiable excuse not to engage with the charter. Some of the arguments we hear are about the financial commitment to the charter, but for me that’s a false economy because you are saving lives. The costs are minimal and we are a non-profit organisation, so the costs are really only for staff who will come and work on the GBV processes.”

Fiona is keen to get involved at the University of Glasgow sooner rather than later, emphasising that EmilyTest comes in to provide coaching from the ground, building up from foundational level, regardless of actions required following the Ross report. “If we wait to have the perfect environment to bring this into, we will be waiting forever, so we need to take action now and we are really encouraging Glasgow University to engage.”


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