Universities in the spotlight: Sexual abuse on campus – the UK perspective

There has been a marked increase in the number of reported incidents of sexual assaults or misconduct made by students. BBC File on Four (17 September 2019) asked 115 universities the number of complaints they received.  80 universities replied.  The combined number of complaints was more than 700 last year.  According to Channel Four, incidents reported went from 65 in 2014 to 626 in 2018, an 85% increase.  165 allegations of rape or sexual assault have been reported by students at one university alone in the last three years.  This trend reflects an increased willingness to report incidents – although many are never reported – and an increased willingness to investigate them.

Universities are autonomous. Many used to refer complainants to the police.  They are now more willing to become involved as they recognise that complainants want a speedy resolution without police involvement.  Crucially, many universities will now apply a civil standard of proof, which makes it easier for complainants to succeed.  But despite recent changes, there remain criticisms.

When a Warwick University student came across a group chat where fellow students routinely discussed raping female students, she wanted to complain. She was advised against complaining many times and the person appointed to investigate was the Press Director.  She argues this was inherently unfair because his job is to protect the university’s reputation.  She also found the hearing to be unduly oppressive.  Her complaint was upheld and two of the students were banned from campus for 10 years.  On appeal the ban was reduced to one year but the complainant was not informed.  After a public outcry Warwick University commissioned an independent report which was highly critical. The Vice-Chancellor apologised.   New policies and procedures are now being set up.

There are reports of delay, improper investigation or inadequate sanction from students at other universities. Progress is being made: new reporting tools (including anonymous reporting) are made available, new policies are adopted, specialist counsellors and investigators are appointed and prevention campaigns are being run.

The Office for Students, the regulatory body set up in 2017, is monitoring universities’ actions in this area. Its chief executive wants universities to step up their efforts and has warned that she will fine universities that fail to tackle the issue.  Research projects (Catalyst) were commissioned across the country and evaluated here. One project looked at appointing a designated non-drinker – who can look out for others – on nights out.  This was also seen as effective but some campaigners point out this is a victim-blaming approach.  One of the most successful projects was bystander training: students were trained to intervene or create a distraction before pulling the potential victim away.


Geneviève Rich, Associate Solicitor, BLM

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