Sexual misconduct and silenced students

We wanted to know more about the experiences that students have had when they try to report staff sexual misconduct to their university.

Our report ‘Silencing Students: institutional responses to staff sexual misconduct in higher education’ includes data from interviews with students or early career academics who experienced sexual misconduct from academic staff and tried to report it, as well as analysis of policies across UK higher education institutions in relation to staff sexual misconduct and conflicts of interest.

The data suggests that universities need to do much better at dealing with serial sexual predators on staff – the majority of complaints appeared to deal with those who had sexual harassed, groomed or assaulted more than one person. But even after multiple complaints, it appeared to be very difficult for these people to be dismissed. Across the interviews, only one out of 15 academic staff who had complaints made against them was dismissed as a result, raising urgent questions around the safeguarding of other students they may come into contact with. Interviewees described how institutional responses to reports of staff sexual misconduct involved making it up as it went along.

This lack of preparedness, among other factors, meant that for some complainants, reports of staff sexual misconduct either were not investigated at all, and for others investigations were not carried out adequately.

Power imbalance

In addition, the policy analysis in the report revealed a lack of detail about or awareness of these issues, and some staff-student relationships policies included what amounted to a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. Such policies included variations on the following phrase: ‘The university does not wish to prevent liaisons between staff and students and it relies upon the integrity of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.” This wording is highly problematic as it suggests that it is students’ responsibility to avoid abuse of power perpetrated by a staff member. It also suggests a lack of institutional awareness of the power imbalance and potential harms involved in such relationships.

If institutional policies and processes failed to protect complainants, there were few options available to them for redress. It was almost impossible for students to access the Office for the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) because they had to complete the complaints process at their institution first. This could take several years, involving up to four rounds of complaints processes. The traumatic and labour-intensive nature of this process meant that even going through one round of the process tended to leave complainants severely distressed and unable to continue.

The only other option for redress was legal action, but there is currently no professional legal support available for students unless they pay for it themselves. This meant that even in cases where complainants were told by lawyers they had a case against their university, only one of the interviewees was able to take it forward.

A lack of oversight

These findings raise real concerns about the lack of oversight of institutions in relation to staff sexual misconduct. International students in the sample were shocked to find that despite the UK’s reputation for good quality HE, there was no regulatory body they could appeal to when their lives and careers were ruined by their institution’s failure to protect them. Indeed, students have less protection than employees, as they are not protected by employment law and students’ unions do not usually provide legal advice or support.

One of the recommendations is for sector bodies such as the Office for Students to develop tougher regulation and sanctions to ensure that institutions deal adequately with staff sexual misconduct. It is encouraging to see that the issue is on the radar of both the OfS and Universities UK, who are convening an advisory group on this topic on which The 1752 Group will sit.

This shows progress in the two years since UUK published the ‘Changing Our Cultures’ report on student-student sexual harassment, bullying and hate crime, which named staff-student sexual misconduct as one of their next steps. In addition, there is work being done across the sector and within institutions on improving investigations. We hope that this report will provide helpful evidence to aid this work, and we have partnered with leading discrimination law firm McAllister Olivarius and drawn on the evidence in the report to produce a consultation document on guidelines for investigations.

These steps are coming too late for the interviewees in this report. One PhD student described how she “put my faith in the process, and I really regret having done that”. For her, the investigation process was “emotionally almost as bad, if not worse than the original act”, but the staff member investigated is still in post despite the testimony of her co-complainants and herself.

It is therefore an urgent task to restore students’ faith in institutional processes, which will require frank and open conversations, investment of resources, and commitment from sector leaders. There is now at least a desire for change in the sector – and we urgently need to build on this impetus to build a responsive, fair, and survivor-centred approach to addressing this issue.

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