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Sexual assault survivors continually let down by universities, says report

Complaints of harassment and sexual abuse are ‘not being adequately addressed’, according to the Office for Students

A new report has zoned in on UK universities that are continually “letting down” students who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, where institutions are offering “inadequate” support and “ineffective” reporting procedures. 

The Office for Students (OfS) has urged universities to ensure robust procedures are in place to deal with reports of harassment and sexual misconduct. The regulator has also warned that those that fail to respond adequately to such reports could face fines up to £500,000 and deregistration, meaning their funding would be withdrawn. 

The regulator says there are “widespread reports of harassment and sexual misconduct which are not being adequately addressed by providers”, and that there is evidence of a “lack of consistent and effective systems, policies and procedures in place to respond to reports of such incidents”.

OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said in a statement: “Too often students say they are not getting the support they need if they suffer this unacceptable behaviour, and that reporting systems are not clear or effective. Many institutions are taking concrete steps to address the issue and we have funded 119 projects across the country to develop initiatives and share them across the sector. But we need to do more for the students who are still being let down by ineffective procedures and inadequate support.”

The OfS has released a set of proposals to outline how such complaints should be handled. It has recommended that universities provide consent workshops for students to learn what behaviour is appropriate, and bystander training to teach people what to do if they witness an incident of sexual abuse or harassment. 

In cases where individual institutions fail to improve, OfS has warned that universities could have their registration revoked, meaning they would no longer be able to access public funds such as tuition fee loans.  

NUS women’s officer Rachel Watters tells Dazed that, though steps have been taken to deliver better support services for survivors, more needs to be done. “There has been some work done to improve university reporting and disciplinary procedures, provide support for student survivors, train staff members in handling cases of harassment and hate crime, and deliver workshops to transform university cultures,” Watters said. “Whilst this is incredibly encouraging, more needs to be done and we hope they are the beginning of lasting institutional commitments and campaigning work to eradicate these issues. 

“The burden of tackling sexual harassment and violence at universities has been shouldered by the most marginalised students. For this to shift we need to see universities develop robust policies and reporting procedures regarding sexual violence and harassment that interlink with broader institutional policies, review their support services to ensure they centre on student survivors' welfare, educate their students and staff on power, gender and consent and collaborate meaningfully with students to tackle these issues.”

There are been a number of high profile cases recently in which UK universities have failed to handle reports of sexual assault properly. Back in February, Warwick University hit the headlines for not dismissing a group of students who exchanged graphic rape threats on a group chat, which led to a protest on campus against the uni’s lax attitudes to sexual misconduct.

A report by the National Union of Students (NUS) released last summer found that sexual abuse was a wider problem across the UK’s higher education institutions, revealing that 75 per cent of students have had at least one unwanted sexual experience during their studies. The NUS report also revealed that one in seven students had either experienced rape or been subjected to attempted rape. 

Stats were revealed by the BBC last year that showed reports of rape, sexual assault, and harassment at UK universities have trebled in three years. 

A further report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found racial harassment to be at an “alarmingly high rate” in universities across the UK, with at least 24 per cent BAME students experiencing racism on campus. The report highlighted the lack of fair response by universities to reports.

The OfS intends to closely monitor information from students, universities, and colleges to determine how institutions are responding to its proposals on sexual harassment and misconduct cases.