The NUS Women’s Campaign has been working to tackle sexual harassment on university campuses for over 10 years.
Ever since our Hidden Marks report was published in 2010, we have been lobbying and campaigning for institutions, the sector and government to do more to prevent these abuses from taking place and to support those affected when they do.
Significant progress has since been made. 2015 saw the government order a taskforce to look into reducing violence against women and girls on university campuses and, in 2016, Universities UK, who convened the taskforce, published the findings. All brought much-needed light to a pervasive problem, but nothing began to tackle or even examine staff-to-student sexual harassment in universities. Today’s report, Power in the Academy: staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education, aims to do just that.
In November 2017, the NUS Women’s Campaign teamed up with research and lobbying organisation The 1752 Group to launch a survey to find out more about staff-student sexual misconduct in higher education. The findings are alarming, particularly in relation to how staff misconduct affects women. However, we want to be clear that this is a descriptive study, rather than a prevalent one, and it seeks to address practices, procedures and cultures within HEIs.
Power and consent
The report revealed that 80% of respondents were uncomfortable with staff having sexual or romantic relationships with students. While it is not for us to recommend whether or not such relationships are inappropriate, the question of what sexual consent means in a relationship of unequal power should be discussed in HEIs across the country. To address the consequences of professional boundaries being broken, a nuanced conversation around power and consent in sexual relationships between staff and students in higher education is needed. A third of UK universities do not currently have any policies governing staff-student relationships. As such, we recommend that policies and practices for cases surrounding abuse perpetrated by staff must be created, or – in institutions where they already exist – be implemented and made more robust.
For too long these problems have been side-lined or silenced by institutions. Fewer than 1 in 10 respondents who experiences misconduct reported it to their institution. However, simply encouraging students to report incidents will not solve the problem. Given the lack of clarity around professional boundaries and disciplinary processes, it is unsurprising that students do not have confidence in their university to deal with their concern appropriately. For institutions that already have policies in place, we must see an immediate review, and resilient changes made where the institutions are found to lack any sort of guidelines. Ultimately, these need to balance the rights of the student with those of staff members and ensure a transparent process is followed. We hope that this report will help us challenge cultures of entitlement and stop abuses of power.
There is still a long way to go. This study is just the beginning of a campaign to address unequal power structures and their effects on the groups most at risk of harm – women, and LGBT+ students, to name a few. We need a prevalent study across all higher education institutions and we call on the sector – via the Office for Students and Universities UK – to provide funding for a UK-wide piece of work. We look forward to working with sector bodies to discuss the recommendations enclosed in today’s report in more depth to make higher education a safe environment for all students.