If the latest media attention has shown you anything, it’s that sexual assault and harassment is happening, everywhere. At university it has happened to me, it has happened to my friends and it’s happening at every higher education institution in the UK.
So why are report rates so low? One university’s response to our Freedom of Information Request revealed that they had just one incident of sexual assault on record in five years. University management, some of the country’s most intelligent and highly educated people, must be able to see that this is misrepresentative of reality.
In the U.K we pride ourselves on the fact that every student is entitled to a positive student experience, as well as a degree. But what happens if you’re sexually assaulted by another student?
Thanks to the Zellick report, U.K institutions have spent over two decades in compliance with the view that it is ‘out of the question’ for them to take internal action on reports of sexual violence committed against their students; their responsibility is to direct students to the police and nothing more. Since then, sexual assault and harassment have infected every aspect of university life.
While at university I experienced everything from harassment and ‘casual’ groping to rape, none of which I reported – and I am not alone. This is because the university bubble is unique: day in, day out, you study, socialise and live with your peers. Every area of your life overlaps with something or somebody, and the likelihood of bumping into a friend or foe, even in the most populous of universities, is extremely high. With no support or policy in place at my university, reporting it to a member of staff or the police felt out of the question.
Thanks to the Changing the Culture report, reform is something universities have begun to consider. But mere consideration does not beget the action that students deserve. Many institutions do not have one member of staff trained in sexual violence disclosures. There is limited to no advice provided on where a survivor can seek support from the university. The same policies, and disciplinary procedures, used for plagiarism are often applied to students reporting rape.
Revolt Sexual Assault is a national campaign I set up to expose the nature and extent of sexual violence at U.K universities. We collate raw, powerful and humanising video testimonials from across the country – where students can remain as anonymous as they wish. Far too many of the students we have listened to, even those who bravely reported their experiences to their university, were let down...
We found that there was no recent data to reflect our testimonials and demonstrate the scale of this epidemic. Therefore, in partnership with The Student Room, we launched the first national survey on this issue in a decade.
Personal tutors are a staple part of universities’ structures, with most issues facing students being directed in the first instance to their personal tutor. That personal tutor is likely to be an academic and not hired for their capabilities in pastoral care. A disclosure of sexual violence takes a huge amount of courage from a survivor, and listening to one can be traumatic – so why is an academic, with no requisite training, the first staff member students are directed to? Research demonstrates that every time survivors share their story, they relive their experience. Lack of institutional support for student survivors of assault means that it is likely the student has to share that violating experience with several new and different members of staff throughout their degree and life at university – and they relive that trauma every time to avoid the perpetrator.
Universities tend to approach issues from an academic perspective; it is after all their expertise. However, this has resulted in so much of the work going on in this area being far too impersonal: research, reports, numbers and proposals. I set up Revolt Sexual Assault, to remind everyone that there are humans involved, with real stories and real emotions. Universities owe students a duty of care, and this is not currently being met.
Universities with protocols in place tend to keep them close to their chest, with their students unaware that they even exist – highlighting the significant need for awareness and prevention campaigns to be implemented. In 2013, the United States introduced a policy, mandating universities to provide ‘primary prevention and awareness programs’ regarding sexual misconduct and related offenses. Such policies are sparsely available in the U.K’s current higher education system.
The overruling fear amongst senior management seems to be that any action they take against sexual violence with have a negative impact on their university’s prestigious reputation.
And we understand that many universities are frightened about approaching the topic of sexual violence. If a university improves their services and reporting mechanisms, then those report rates will inevitably go up, and they will be acknowledging that sexual assault and harassment is happening at their institutions.
But it is such a misconception that taking action on sexual violence would negatively impact a university’s reputation – far from it.
Yes, taking action will cause report rates to increase. But those higher numbers will show that your students feel safe, supported and comfortable in trusting you with their experiences.
Students are acutely aware of this sexual violence epidemic; it is their daily reality. For all the prospective and current students that we have listened to, and represent through our campaign’s work, a university that acknowledges and understands the reality of what we as students have to go through on a regular basis, that stands up and says that sexual assault and harassment will not be tolerated on their campus, that provides clear and accessible reporting procedures and support services, will be one that wins those applications every time.
We know that sexual violence is an issue for wider society and not at all the fault of universities, simply that university communities do have a really important role to play in caring for their students.
We’ve made the decision to keep all institutional data we collect through the survey anonymous, because we are not out to target any individual university, but to work together with university communities across the UK to target the issue of sexual assault and harassment experienced by students.
We’ve also offered every university that circulates the survey to their students a confidential survey outcome report specific to their university, alongside anonymised sector average data, so that they can completely, confidentially gain an insight into the real and raw student experience of sexual violence on their campuses, and put this at the heart of their response going forward.
Alongside our survey report we will be producing recommendations for universities, and a call for a national policy on sexual violence at universities, enforced by the government, to ensure all students across the U.K are receiving a minimum standard of care.
To date, students and their experiences seem to have been lost in the system. I set up Revolt Sexual Assault to bridge the gap between institutions and survivors. It’s easy to read over a report, study the numbers but please look our participants in the eye – and remember that universities foremost priority should be its students, and their student experience.
Access the survey, here.
Hannah Price is a freelance multi-media journalist, video producer and the Founder of Revolt Sexual Assault #ItsRevolting. With words on social justice, inequality and feminism. Hannah has a BSc in mathematics from the University of Bristol and was named Best Journalist in the South at the 2017 SPA Awards. Her previous work includes news reporting, utilising social media, investigations, lifestyle features, contributing to two BBC Three documentaries and producing innovative video content. Hannah's bylines can be found in publications such as; Epigram, The Telegraph, Times Higher Education and the Guardian. She tweets at @hanhanprice.
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