Sexual violence in higher education hasn’t gone away

Jo Swo is the Against Sexual Violence Project Co-ordinator at Goldsmiths Students'​ Union

Over four years ago, Universities UK published a report from its taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.

It was work that even then was long overdue, and acted as a response to a wave of student activism that had been demanding institutions take responsibility for a culture that tolerated sexual violence on campus.

Just over a year ago, Universities UK published an update on implementation of the recommendations that even Universities Minister Chris Skidmore expressed disappointment at:

I am struck by the report’s finding that not all senior leaders are taking strong ownership of the issue, which is simply not good enough. I am urging all leaders to prioritise a zero tolerance culture to all harassment and hate crime and do all they can to follow these recommendations.”

So as Universities UK releases another of these types of report, this time on racial harassment – and as the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales re-publishes its own guidance on tackling violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence in higher education – it is worth raising questions about the depth and longevity of “change” that we have seen in the sector, particularly when a pandemic comes along to test the commitments made in statements and plans.

We are taking action

In 2016 the UUK report generated a flurry of task-forces, 10 point plans and snappy campaign titles. Projects were funded and press statements were issued as universities moved to combat the negative media attention that seemed to accompany every student survey on the issue.

We are no longer in “the dark” when it comes to sexual violence. We have digestable texts like Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education: A Good Guide written by Clarissa J. Humphreys and Graham J Towl, which is practically a “How to Tackle Sexual Violence for Dummies” for SMT, detailed sector recommendations provided by the 1752 Group on staff-student misconduct, case studies of student survivors experiences documented in the NUS Hidden Marks Report and evaluations and resources from funded projects. The help is there, in black and white, more accessible than ever.

But while Covid generated an emergency “pivot” that many in the sector are proud of, it feels like work on sexual violence was left behind. Project, service and campaign delivery across the sector has been paused or abandoned. Initiatives like the Against Sexual Violence Project that I work on at Goldsmiths are struggling to agree continued funding. And the Office for Students indefinitely paused a consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education – sending the message that the pandemic has somehow stopped sexual violence. It hasn’t.

Since the first national lockdown in March, organisations and support services such as Rape Crisis and Revenge Porn Helpline have reported a spike in demand for their help. Lockdown has forced many to stay at home in situations which were, or became, unsafe with little route to escape, intimate image abuse has increased and stalking has risen.

When universities encouraged students to live in their halls with the promise of “blended learning” and a regular student experience, summer ought to have been the time when these task forces and partnerships were making realistic plans and predictions that adapted to the “new normal”. The first week of university is already called the “Red Zone” by some and has been identified as the most dangerous time for female students at universities due to the high level of sexual harassment, assaults and violence. But despite this, action evaporated and official reports remain low.

The signal and the noise

One issue that has dogged the sector since the issues made it onto the agenda has been reporting. Universities have been worried about the reputational issues of increased usage of procedures, and have fought against misreading the take up of formal declaration as signifying an increase.

A good test of policies is whether or not they are being used by students in practice. A good policy is, by definition, not a good policy if it remains largely unused in practice.’

Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education: A Good Guide’ by Clarissa J. Humphreys & Graham J. Towl

So there is a danger that a decrease in reporting this term is misread too. What do we think happens if we isolate students in bubbles with strangers and they cannot return to their families or support networks? And if we suspend the educational workshops, support groups and face-to-face counselling that works to combat or heal the impacts of sexual violence, do we think the problem goes away just because the reporting falls off again?

This is usually the time of the year when we see “16 Days of Action Against Gender-Based Violence” but things are quiet this year. Yet we know that creating, fostering and changing the culture is what helps students feel confident enough to report and helps clear perpetrators out. Sexual violence doesn’t stop during a pandemic, neither should the work to fight it.

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