Universities ignoring rape culture warnings, say campaigners

Alexandra Topping
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Universities have ignored repeated warnings to tackle rape culture on campus, and left themselves exposed to lawsuits and reputational damage, according to lawyers and campaigners.

Students who disclosed that they were victims of sexual assault or harassment on campus still faced a postcode lottery on whether they would be given the support they needed and whether action would be taken, said Anna Bull, co-director of the 1752 Group, a UK-based research and lobby organisation working to end sexual misconduct in higher education.

“If you come forward with a disclosure or complaint as a student, the chances are that you probably won’t get sufficiently supported and it won’t be dealt with in the way that you would like,” she said. “Some universities are putting substantial amounts of resources and expertise into tackling this issue, but they are by far the minority.”

The warning comes as more than 80 UK universities were named on the Everyone’s Invited website, which now features 15,000 accounts of sexual harassment, abuse, misogyny and assault. A total of 1,035 testimonies were sent to Everyone’s Invited in the space of one week.

Seventeen UK universities – including 15 Russell Group universities – have more than five mentions, while 12 universities attracted more than 30 testimonies.

The founder Soma Sara said the number of assaults on campus exposed the reality that women were raped and assaulted in every walk of life. “As Everyone’s Invited has emphasised from the outset, rape culture is everywhere including in all universities,” she said.

Georgina Calvert-Lee, head of UK practice at the law firm McAllister Olivarius, said universities were in breach of their duty of care to protect students and staff if they did not provide a campus free of discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Calvert-Lee, who represented two victims of the Warwick University rape chat scandal in which female students were the subject of violent sexual comments by a group of male undergraduates, said the vast majority of cases were settled and added that it might take a case to go to the high court to accelerate change in university cultures.

“Universities are absolutely exposing themselves to lawsuits brought by victims of sexual assault, because they have a duty of care to their students,” she said, adding that in the 30-40 cases she had dealt with she had not seen a university with a “fair” complaints procedure, which gave equal rights to the parties involved. Due, in part, to fears about privacy laws, complainants were treated only as witnesses, with no right to rebut counter-claims about their credibility made by the accused, she said.

“We say that is a breach of duty of care; we also say it’s discriminatory,” she said. “Having a system that systematically favours the accused over the complainant amounts to indirect discrimination because it puts women, who are more likely to be complainants than accused, at a particular disadvantage.”

Most legal cases never came to light because universities regularly used non-disclosure agreements, usually before lawyers were involved, to stop anyone speaking about what had happened, she added.

Universities had been aware of problems with sexual violence on campuses for at least a decade, but overall progress had been glacial, said Bull, adding that she was aware of only four universities – University College London, Cambridge, Durham and Goldsmiths – that transparently published annual reports with the number of complaints and how many were upheld.

“I’m surprised that we’re not seeing a lot more lawsuits against universities,” said Bull. “But that’s partly because it’s so expensive. If students were able to afford legal action, I think we would see a much quicker shift.”

In 2010 the NUS report Hidden Marks [pdf], found that 68% of students had experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment. A recent Guardian investigation uncovered more than 160 accounts of staff-to-student sexual harassment, while, in 2016, Universities UK’s Changing the Culture report told institutions to embed a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual violence into their policies and create better reporting systems.

The NUS’s vice-president, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, said 2018 NUS research showed four in 10 students had experienced sexual misconduct, including one in eight from staff members. “Three years on from this, we would have hoped to see universities taking concrete action, and for the problem to be shrinking – it is heartbreaking that this is not the case,” she said.