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University students must be protected from sexual violence

Universities are meeting places for people from all over the country and abroad. Hence, they reflect the systemic sexism that is present within our society. According to the Revolt Survey conducted by the Student Room and Revolt charity in 2018, 62% of students and recent graduates have experienced some form of sexual violence during their degree. This may range from (but is not limited to) groping and unwanted sexual touching, verbal harassment, sexual assault and rape. Sexual assault may be experienced by anyone, regardless of their gender. However, women and girls are more disproportionately affected by this issue. According to that same report, 70% of female students reported experiencing some form of sexual violence at university, with 57% experiencing sexual harassment and 48% being sexually assaulted. These figures reflect sexual violence within wider society. According to research quoted by the End Violence Against Women coalition, one in three teenage girls have experienced sexual violence from a partner and one in five women experience some form of sexual violence from the age of 16.

Therefore, combating sexual violence at UK univerisites can help tackle the issue of gender-based violence in wider society. Universities educate the next generation and the earlier we teach people how to respect others, the more likely we are to prevent incidents of sexual violence. Perpetrators could go on to offend in the outside world, if they don’t learn. Universities are a place for personal development, so offer a chance to correct bad behaviour and educate students on the importance of consent.

From the famous group chat incident at the University of Warwick, to other cases of sexual misconduct at St Andrews, Cambridge and Manchester, it’s clear that this issue affects universities across the country. Even so, these mentioned universities may not be the worst ones. Perhaps theirs were the cases that caught the attention of the national media. For every case that gets reported, whether to an individual university or on the front pages of a national paper, many other survivors remain silent. They fear they won’t be believed or that perpetrators will not receive proper sanctions. As a student, it’s virtually impossible to be unaware of rape culture and misogyny on campus. So where are UK universities going wrong?

Reclaim the Campus is a campaign led by students and recent graduates, researching sexual misconduct and racism on campuses and sharing these findings to raise awareness and spur on change. After researching the policies for sexual misconduct of 41 of the UK’s largest universities, we discovered that only 13 have ones solely dedicated to sexual misconduct. Other universities are delegating the issue to other policy areas such as the Harassment, Dignity and Respect or general Student Disciplinary policies. The scope of the policies also vary. Whilst some give clear definitions of what constitutes sexual misconduct, as well as the consequences for doing it, other universities only briefly refer to the issue. This does not reflect the vast scale of the problem.

Universities provide a service to students and therefore have an obligation to protect them. There will unfortunately always be issues of sexual misconduct, but having zero-tolerance offers students better protection. Emphasis must be on prevention and institutions must be willing to adopt a holistic approach, like that proposed by ProtectED — one that encompasses the before, during and after of an incident. Prevention can involve compulsory consent classes and bystander training, to empower students and give them better understanding of what a potentially vague term like ‘sexual misconduct’ actually means. University venues and those in local towns should adopt the Ask for Angela, so students can access quick and confidential help if they experience problems on a night out.

University senior leaders must lead by example and clearly indicate what a zero-tolerance approach looks like. They should adopt specific sexual misconduct policies and procedures, defining sexual misconduct and its consequences. There should be online Report and Support tools to flag issues. Policies must also signpost internal and external support services. Each university should employ an ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) and have close links with local specialist services, like Rape Crisis Centres. Such experts can offer students the help they need, but also inform policymakers about what more needs to be done. Finally, universities must speak to survivors. Although this may be difficult, as talking about experiences of sexual violence may be painful and traumatic, students should have the opportunity to tell universities what happened to them and how it could have been prevented. This could be done anonymously, via email or through establishing working groups. It is only by listening to survivors that universities will truly understand the scale of the problem and learn what they can do to truly adopt a zero-tolerance approach. Otherwise, the problem will never get solved.