This article is more than 7 years old

Staff-to-student sexual harassment must be tackled urgently

Our sector and profession urgently needs a conversation and action about staff-to-student sexual harassment, which is more prevalent than many realise, argues Anna Bull.
This article is more than 7 years old

Anna Bull is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at the University of York and a founding member of The 1752 Group

In October, the Universities UK taskforce on violence against women, harassment and hate crime in higher education will release its final report. Although originally formed to examine student-to-student sexual harassment in universities, it is just as important that the taskforce considers matter of staff-to-student sexual harassment and misconduct.

We do not have any data on the prevalence of staff-to-student sexual harassment and misconduct in higher education in the UK due to a lack of research. However, a recent study from the US surveying 150,000 students across 27 institutions found that one-in-six female graduate students had experienced sexual harassment from a teacher or advisor. It seems likely that levels would be similar in the UK. The US is a long way ahead of the UK in dealing with this issue, partly because a series of high profile scandals has forced institutions to make changes, and Title IX, a federal law prohibiting discrimination in education, has provided a clear legal framework.

Breaking the silence

The UK has also recently had two high profile scandals regarding staff-to-student sexual harassment. In May, Professor Sara Ahmed resigned from Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to deal with staff-to-student sexual harassment. In August, The Independent revealed that the University of Sussex was still employing a lecturer who had been convicted of domestic violence offences against a student with whom he was in a relationship.

What is unusual about these incidents is that they hit the headlines at all. As the Guardian recently revealed, universities are using non-disclosure agreements to hush up incidents of staff-student sexual harassment. Moreover, practitioners in this area know that the vast majority of people experiencing sexual harassment, violence or misconduct in higher education do not report their experiences to their institution.

The reasons why women do not report sexual offences to the police, and may not tell anyone at all, are compounded when it comes to sexual harassment and misconduct within universities. These reasons may include fears around being named, fear of reprisals from the perpetrator which may severely affect a student’s university career, lack of faith that anything will be done about it, shame at having to disclose what has happened, lack of visible sexual harassment policies or not knowing who to report to, or the harassment being condoned or encouraged by the very people to whom a student would report it (such as personal tutor or head of department who may be friends with the perpetrator). Furthermore, students may not identify their experience as sexual harassment or misconduct if they are in a relationship with a member of staff; it may not be until the relationship breaks up that they realise that they are in a highly vulnerable position, as their academic support, references, offers of work, and even their intellectual confidence can be put at risk by the end of such a relationship.

Current policies, procedures and support structures are largely inadequate for dealing with this issue. While some have well-designed policies (for example, a bespoke policy specifically for this issue which names at least two members of staff whom students can approach formally or informally), many institutions maintain a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in relation to staff-student sexual relationships, assuming that the issue is one of consenting adults. This ignores the power differences inherent in teacher-student relationships. Research on domestic violence demonstrates that controlling, violent relationships can be predicted by looking at measures of power imbalances such as age differences.

Informal mitigation not sufficient

Upon forming The 1752 Group, a new lobby group and consultancy on this issue, we found that there was almost no expertise on staff-to-student sexual harassment in the UK. Drawing on our backgrounds in organisational change management, supporting survivors of sexual violence, safeguarding within schools, and corporate research, as well as our experience working on a major sexual harassment case of this nature in the UK, we are now working to put this issue on the agenda within higher education in the UK, and to provide the solutions that universities will need.

Informal approaches or mediation do not adequately address this kind of sexual misconduct. They rely on the assumption that the perpetrator will change their behaviour when requested. Instead, the complainant may lose any supervision s/he has had, as this may be linked with compliance to a perpetrator’s sexual demands. The most common outcome is that students simply disappear and eventually drop out, feeling unsafe on campus and lacking any support in their work; what Professor Sara Ahmed describes as HE’s ‘missing women’.

Students’ vulnerability can be further compounded by racial discrimination, homophobia and transphobia faced by some groups. This makes the reporting of sexual misconduct even less likely by queer, non-binary and racial minority students. Postgraduate student non-completion rates could be a good place to examine the extent of such problems. Indeed, the QAA report on Goldsmiths in 2015 drew attention to problems with completion rates among postgraduate students, but failed to analyse these by gender or department. Such an analysis might have allowed an investigation of departments with high levels of postgraduate student non-completion along gender lines.

What is to be done?

In the longer-term, the higher education sector in the UK needs to introduce a binding professional code of conduct regarding staff-to-student sexual harassment. Other professions such as therapists or health professionals are required to adhere to such a code of conduct. In higher education it is often argued that such measures are not necessary because all parties are consenting adults and therefore relationships should not be regulated, but this is not accepted within health professions. The General Medical Council specifies that sexual relationships and indecent behaviour towards patients are unethical, and that members are expected to report colleagues who breach these guidelines. Academia is currently lacking equivalent guidelines. In the absence of a professional registration body such as the General Medical Council, it would be appropriate for Universities UK to take the lead on consulting on the likely efficacy of such a policy, and developing and implementing an appropriate code of conduct.

In the short term, there are several ways to take this issue forward, both by individual institutions and nationally. Within individual institutions, leadership is key. It is crucial to have a champion in senior management who will support students experiencing harassment and push through changes or investigations.

Another option is to ban staff-student sexual relationships. To our knowledge, the only UK higher education institution that has implemented such a policy is the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this has been highly successful. While there is the danger that this type of policy drives staff-student relationships underground, it is helpful in signalling the type of learning environment that the institution encourages, and especially if it sends a clear message that it is the staff member who will be held responsible if the policy is violated.

Institutions should also revise and reflect upon their policies, complaints procedures, support for students, and institutional culture. Research into sexual harassment in the workplace demonstrates that sexual harassment is primarily about a culture, rather than individuals. The 1752 Group are working on best practice guidelines in this area, drawing on work from the US and from other sectors, and we are interested in hearing from institutions that would like to become leaders in this field.

On a sector-wide level, we would first of all like to see funding made available for research. We need to understand more about the prevalence of the problem, and how sexual harassment and misconduct affects students’ academic engagement. Staff-student sexual harassment and misconduct should also be a central part of gender equality kitemarks and awards, and we are in discussions with the Equality Challenge Unit about how this might take place.

Finally, we would like to see a broad discussion of how universities can more robustly support their staff and students against harassment. These questions have been under discussion in other major public sector institutions the world over, such as the police, and it is now higher education’s turn to open up on this problem. It is likely that the coming years will see legal challenges to higher education institutions around the failure to protect students from sexual harassment. Addressing these questions earlier rather than later is in the interests of the whole sector as well as for individual institutions.

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