An investigation into the UK’s 60 biggest universities has revealed damning inconsistencies in sexual abuse and harassment policies, with one university giving students just 10 working days to report sexual harassment, assault or abuse by a staff member.
At Leeds Beckett, in the north of England, students who raise complaints after this short deadline risk having their allegations dismissed without any investigation.
Overall, just one of the 60 biggest institutions explicitly bans sexual relationships between staff and students, raising serious questions about abuse of power.
Our investigation into justice on campus has also revealed that:
– Forty-two universities impose a time-limit on students making allegations against staff, a rule described as “ridiculous” by experts and warned against by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
– Three universities demand that students submit complaints about harassment by a member of staff within just 15 working days of the incident.
– Fourteen institutions require formal reports within just four weeks of the alleged incident taking place.
– Only 11 of the 60 largest universities have specific policies for investigating student sexual misconduct.
At the University of Central Lancashire in the north west of England, students must raise formal complaints against staff within 15 working days of the last incident of harassment. The university said that it can extend the timeframe if there is “good reason”, but it follows this policy “because this helps us to investigate properly whilst issues are fresh in people’s minds”.
At Kingston University, a nearly identical policy exists. In a statement, a spokesperson said “complaints should normally be made during this [15 day] time period”, but indicated the window could even be shorter, “depending on the nature of the complaint”.
Responding to questions about its short deadline, Leeds Beckett University said it considered every complaint “on an individual basis” and said it takes into account “reasonable explanations” for a delay in making the complaint.
Strict time limits and messy, delayed investigations contribute to a sense among many students we spoke to that universities would not take their complaints against staff or students seriously – or deal with them tactfully or efficiently. “They do the bare minimum at my university, like all campuses,” one young woman said. “It’s more about how they appear than anything else.”
Almost a decade has passed since the National Union of Students (NUS) published its Hidden Marks report on sexual violence on campus, which revealed that 68 per cent of women students had experienced physical or verbal sexual harassment during their time at university.
But both students and experts say universities are still failing to treat the problem with the gravity it deserves, 10 years on. “There is a lot of ducking of these issues and of pretending that they’re more difficult to deal with than they are,” said Graham Towl, co-author of Tackling Sexual Violence at Universities and previously chair of Durham University’s sexual violence task force.
‘The onus is on the victim’
At many UK institutions, reporting sexual misconduct remains a fraught, difficult and sometimes traumatic process.
One woman, who went through a college complaints procedure at Oxford University after a male student sexually assaulted her, said: “The onus is on the victim to put in all the leg work. That’s quite a big thing to ask of someone who has experienced trauma.”
Her complaint was upheld and the man was suspended for a year, but the process was complicated and distressing, she said. The college took almost four months to resolve her complaint and she felt unsupported throughout. “My abiding, repeated feeling is that yes, I got a complaint through. But all of that is down to the fact that I had the inner strength to take that action. It was really difficult and I didn’t get any help.”
She said the process did not leave her with “any sense of justice”. “It’s only worthwhile if you want to protect other women and to stop it from happening again. The complaint process was more traumatic than the actual assault.”
A spokesperson from Oxford University said it had improved its support for students in 2018, and had “revised and rewritten” its student disciplinary procedures, including “special arrangements” for cases of sexual misconduct.
But while most institutions have developed policies for handling sexual harassment and bullying, some are simply tacked on top of old processes.
Tiffany Page, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a founder of the 1752 group, a research and lobbying organisation campaigning to end sexual harassment in universities, accused institutions of “cutting and pasting” from pre-existing polices to handle harassment cases.
Many policies are general, and can be used for a wide range of misconduct, from IT violations to property damage, failing to account for the very specific needs of victims of sexual violence.
“Because there’s no order and there are existing policies, they stuff in a new policy and then say, ‘refer to that policy clause 16’. And you go there, and it’s either contradictory or it’s completely inappropriate,” Page said.
Helen Mott, one of the members of the Universities UK (UUK) taskforce on sexual violence, said: “It’s a mistake to run all kinds of harassment and hate crime together.”
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recommends that sexual harassment and harassment related to race, sexuality, religion, disability or other protected characteristics are handled in distinct ways, with different policies for each. But at present, only 11 of the 60 universities analysed by Tortoise have distinct procedures for investigating sexual misconduct by students.
Under many of the policies we analysed, victims are also kept in the dark about the results of their complaints – against either fellow students or staff.
“Once an investigation has happened and the complaint is upheld, they become a witness,” Page said. “They have no right of understanding the outcome.”
Universities often cite data protection rules as the reason they cannot share details of the outcome with the victim. They claim it could violate the privacy rights of the harasser.
This was the experience of one young woman at Newcastle University who was sexually assaulted by her former partner, also a student. During the university’s investigation a ‘no contact’ order was imposed, but beyond that, she heard nothing.
“I reported being sexually assaulted last year and I didn’t hear a word afterwards,” she said. “If they even had a disciplinary hearing, I wasn’t invited.”
Newcastle has since updated its protocol for investigating sexual misconduct. It now tells alleged victims about disciplinary hearings, and informs them of whether their complaints have been upheld.
A spokesperson said: “We work hard to ensure that every student feels safe at Newcastle and we take every allegation of sexual misconduct very seriously. Each case is assessed individually and appropriate action is taken as soon as possible.”
Recent guidance issued by the EHRC on sexual harassment in the workplace might serve to change these policies. The guidance states that sharing information about the outcome of harassment procedures with the complainant will not necessarily violate the data privacy of the harasser. In fact, the EHRC recommends that employers keep complainants informed of the actions they have taken.
When universities consider how to resolve an allegation, they diverge markedly. Many of the 60 we investigated promote ‘informal’ resolutions as the best way forward.
This problem was identified in 2015, when the NUS highlighted university harassment policies in its ‘Lad Culture’ audit. The NUS argued that encouraging students to find ‘informal’ non-disciplinary solutions trivialised the issue of harassment and placed undue pressure on victims to directly challenge the person who harassed them.
In our analysis we found numerous examples of universities expecting and encouraging students to pursue informal routes – such as confronting attackers or harassers – before initiating formal complaints, unless it would be “inappropriate” to do so.
However, few universities define what sorts of complaints it would be “inappropriate” to handle informally.
Swansea University states in its dedicated bullying and harassment policy that “there is a strong expectation” that students will use the informal procedures “in the vast majority of cases”, with informal measures bypassed “only rarely, and in the most serious of cases”. But the policy does not explain what allegations it would consider serious.
After questions from Tortoise, Swansea has announced it will be updating this policy.
Most policies suggest a variety of informal options alongside the choice for students to address their harasser face-to-face. They might consider writing to the person or seeking advice from a member of staff, for example. But many policies will still place the option of a direct confrontation – either alone or accompanied by a friend or faculty member – at the top of this list.
“It’s misconduct, it’s never appropriate to informally resolve it, or to require that,” said Tiffany Page of the 1752 group.
On, or off, campus
If you are a student, where you are attacked or harassed matters for whether your case will be investigated by your university.
At Birmingham, the student disciplinary procedure states that the rules don’t apply to a “student’s life away from University” and they “will not normally investigate incidents that are not on University premises”.
Most first-year students in Birmingham live in university-owned halls, but students in later years tend to live in privately rented flats and houses.
Last year, reports emerged of several cases in which the university failed to investigate complaints of rape and sexual harassment made by students, because the incidents happened away from campus.
The university refused to handle the case of a woman who alleged she was raped by another student in her privately rented accommodation. A former women’s officer from Birmingham’s Guild of Students told the Guardian in 2019 that they knew of six cases in the previous year that had been dropped for similar reasons.
In a statement in December responding to the reports, the University of Birmingham, said: “In common with many other universities, we continue to grapple with the complex questions that arise when considering what happens next.” These included: “What is the University’s responsibility for investigating a crime if it is not reported to the Police? What are the boundaries of our jurisdiction? Where the Police are equipped with the tools and powers to investigate a serious crime, particularly where this might occur off campus, the University is not.”
Lisa Thompson, the chief executive of the Rape and Sexual Violence Project, an organisation supporting survivors of sexual assault in Birmingham, said “even if sexual violence happens off campus it should be looked into and the university should respond. The university has a responsibility to look into these issues. They concern not only student safety but also human rights”.
While safeguarding rules protect young people in their final two years at school, banning intimate relationships between staff and students, the moment school leavers enter university a few months later, the rules become much looser.
Of the 60 universities, Tortoise found active policies on relationship at 45 of them. The other 15 either did not have a policy, were reviewing their policies or declined to disclose it.
Of the 45, most state that sexual relationships between staff and students are “discouraged” or “strongly discouraged”. But only one of them – Greenwich University in London – explicitly bans sexual relationships between staff and students.
Just 28 of these universities’ policies mention the potential for abuses of power in such relationships.
In 30 of these policies, staff are only required to disclose a sexual or romantic relationship with a student if they have a “professional” duty towards them, for example, a direct role in teaching them, marking their work, or looking after their welfare.
Some universities signalled that they would rather not be involved in these matters at all. While Oxford University does have a ‘staff-student relationships policy’ it also says “the University does not wish to regulate the private lives of its staff”, although a spokesperson said “the University requires that this is brought to the attention of the member of staff’s head of department and steps will be taken to remove any responsibility the staff member has for the student, including for their academic work”.
Edinburgh “does not wish to interfere in the personal lives of its students or staff. Nor does it seek to prohibit intimate relationships between consenting adults”, while Manchester says explicitly that “the University does not wish to prevent liaisons between staff and students”. Most universities have removed such clauses, which were identified as problematic in research by the 1752 group in 2018.
All three of these universities do acknowledge the potential for the abuse of power in such relationships, however.
Most university complaints procedures do not allow “third parties” – parents, guardians, tutors and so on – to submit formal reports on behalf of a student. Some sexual violence experts consider this to be good practice – it is important that survivors have control over how their case is pursued.
But under the tangle of HR, student and disciplinary procedures which currently govern sexual misconduct, members of staff who are troubled by a colleague’s conduct cannot formally lodge their concerns.
Concern for reputation has contributed to years of institutional inertia. Many universities only respond when their failures are exposed in the press. “It’s so short-sighted. Institutions only act when something goes public. Why not do something now? Then you might avoid a PR disaster at a later stage,” says Clare McGlynn, an expert on sexual violence at Durham University.
“Universities need to stop worrying about covering things up and start thinking about how to protect survivors.”
Photographs Tom Pilston for Tortoise, Getty Images
Join our investigation
If you would like to share a story about campus justice and sexual violence, you can email Ella Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org