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Bringing the HE sector up to date on staff-to-student sexual misconduct

The last few months have seen a slew of headlines revealing serious problems of sexual misconduct from academic staff towards students in higher education in the UK as well as elsewhere in the world. A front-page story in the Guardian in August focused on the use of non-disclosure agreements by universities to ensure that students who have experienced various forms of sexual misconduct do not talk publicly about this. The Guardian followed this up with a call-out for anonymous accounts of sexual harassment in higher education and has so far received over 200 stories.

For those of us trying to bring about change in this area, these stories made depressingly familiar reading. Ranging from subtle but destructive sexual harassment, to sexual assault and rape, these accounts made public the types of experiences that have until now, been silenced, despite their apparent prevalence and often devastating effect on students’ lives. We use the term ‘sexual misconduct’ to cover a range of behaviour, which in includes harassment, grooming, bullying, and sexual assault. Only some of this behaviour may be in violation of institutional policies. We also recognise that early career academic staff and those on fixed term contracts are particularly vulnerable to these forms of misconduct from more senior academic staff.

The Guardian’s coverage revealed some of the many reasons why students do not report this misconduct, all of which we have heard about in the course of our work in this area. These include fear of the perpetrator; the (often correct) assumption that reporting will mean the end of their own career ; feeling as though they have been complicit in the sexual harassment if relations were initially consensual; unclear complaint policies or internal departmental procedures that require the student to report to a close colleague of the perpetrator; a pervasive atmosphere of sexism and/or bullying within their department which is public and accepted; lack of faith that the university will do anything about it; being in shock as part of the after-effects of the harassment, grooming or assault; or they may have reported it and previous complaints have been ignored/deleted or it is dealt with ‘informally’ – meaning that nothing has been done. The specificities of sexual misconduct matter: students of colour are more likely to experience forms of sexual misconduct and be less supported as evidenced in recent surveys. The result of this impact, as Professor Sara Ahmed has described, is a problem of ‘missing women’ (experiencing forms of sexual misconduct happens to students irrespective of gender identity, but appears to be more prevalent for those who identify as women, feminine or non-binary) who quietly disappear from the institution when it becomes unsafe or impossible for them to continue.

A culture across higher education that makes it very difficult to report sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse has allowed silence to build around this issue. As a result, there is a lack of research in this area into the prevalence of sexual misconduct by academic staff, and little work developing best practices in this area. The higher education sector in the UK is in urgent need of up to date empirical research in this area. In the US, a survey published in 2015 [pdf] of over 150,000 students at 27 universities found that one in six female postgraduate students reported sexual harassment from a teacher or advisor.

In order to try to draw together expertise to address this issue, I organised a conference with two colleagues, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley, at Goldsmiths in December 2015. We found it difficult to find specific expertise in this area; there was no existing best practice. Following this conference, we have founded a lobby group to work on this issue, The 1752 Group. The name comes out of the conference; Goldsmiths put £1752 towards our work, seeing this amount of money as being sufficient to deal with the issue of staff-to-student sexual harassment. A few months later, in June 2016, they were hit with a major scandal when Professor Sara Ahmed resigned over Goldsmiths’ failure to deal with sexual harassment by academic staff. Our name therefore refers to the inadequacy of sticking-plaster solutions or window-dressing to deal with this issue. Instead, the problem requires an institution-wide, deep level approach to address policies, hiring procedures, professional codes of conduct and culture.

We are currently working with other academics, higher education subject associations, the National Union of Students, workplace harassment specialists and legal experts to formulate ideas towards bringing about institutional and sector-wide change in this area. Given the lack of discussion of this issue in the sector, it is crucial to draw on expertise from outside higher education in order to find solutions, while recognising the unique issues of power and precarity that occur within the academy. Fortunately there is excellent work going on, such as that of Kathryn Nawrockyi, a member of our advisory board, Gender Equality Director at Business in the Community who have worked with organisations from the army to elite professional services firms on changing their cultures around sexual harassment. We also draw on the expertise of academics such as Alison Phipps who has published widely on student-to-student sexual harassment including a recent report on institutional culture at Imperial College London [pdf], and Vanita Sundaram who is running the ‘Universities Supporting the Victims of Sexual Violence’ research project at the University of York.

The 1752 Group will be organising an event in 2017 to formulate best practice in this area. The issues