In the UK, institution-level data collection on gender-based sexual violence and harassment remains underdeveloped, with no sector-standard survey tool available or in use.
Conversely, North America has a well-developed tradition of campus climate surveys and an array of instruments available to explore students’ perceptions of safety on campus, fears, and/or experiences of sexual assault and victimisation issues – with findings easily accessible. The US Congress even passed legislation in 2022 supporting the development of a national climate survey to be administered every two years in all colleges and universities that accept federal funding.
Yet, in the UK, data collection in this area is much less developed. While the National Union of Students conducted a survey of student-student sexual misconduct in 2010 and worked with The 1752 Group to survey staff sexual misconduct, and the Office for Students is currently preparing a national prevalence survey, data at institution level is extremely difficult to find.
More concerningly, there are indications that even when data is being gathered, it is not being published. Khatidja Chantler’s 2019 study of university staff involved in addressing gender-based violence and harassment found that 31 out of 71 respondents reported their institutions were doing prevalence surveys to establish baseline data. Only a handful of these appear to have publicly reported their institution-level survey findings – which were mainly carried out by students’ unions.
We authors have all independently surveyed gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in different HEIs (pre- and post-1992 institutions, as well as larger and smaller institutions) using surveys based on the Administrator-Researcher Campus Climate Consortium (ARC3) survey used in US institutions.
The challenges we encountered in carrying out such research – as well as publishing the findings and using them to create change – may explain why the data in this area is so hidden.
Reputation, resources, and resistance
Within one of the universities, it was clear that institutional reputation was impeding publication with a hesitancy to appear to have a GBVH problem. This is despite a national context openly discussing that all HEIs likely have similar issues.
A more significant barrier across all three sites – was the lack of institutional support. This was with resources, expertise, and time. In most cases, insufficient time – and in some, no time at all – was allocated to academic staff to conduct the work. And so, for the most part, the work was carried out as voluntary labour on top of existing workloads. In all of our studies, voluntarism contributed to challenges in publishing and disseminating the findings. The work was (and is) unsustainable.
On top of the research itself, a considerable amount of extra labour was needed to deal with resistance and ensure the institutions take up this work. Academics needed to be consummate institutional politicians to know how to get work recognised within their institution. And despite doing this labour in our institutions, we still could secure support.
Students, surveys, and stalling
A lack of institutional prioritisation for this work, including from senior leadership, also prevented publication. As a result, thousands of students across all three institutions spent time completing surveys. Still, none have yet published findings in a student-friendly format (which raises questions over whether asking students for this data is ethical if we do not share the findings with them).
While peer-reviewed articles are under development or review, academic publication formats are not accessible communication methods for reaching students, nor do they facilitate using findings to support awareness-raising within institutions.
Furthermore, the surveys have yet to be used as a baseline for future work for evaluating initiatives – as had been intended. And at two of the universities, while there were intentions to carry out further biannual surveys, the difficulties experienced with the research’s first iteration makes this highly unlikely.
The lack of long-term planning for this work is stark. It relies on individuals ‘ energy and commitment rather than being embedded into institutional or sector frameworks. In this light, such work risks becoming seen by the institution as an end rather than the start of improvement processes.
While academic networks are emerging, and a knowledge base is being built – and, most importantly, it is clear that students are interested and willing to participate in such surveys – we still have a long way to go in creating a climate where publishing findings and sharing and discussing them openly and productively with students is possible.
These difficulties highlight wider problems around the transparency of gender-based violence in UK HEI surveys. They also raise the question of what happens to data from these studies. Despite 31 universities in the UK carrying out surveys on gender-based violence by 2019, the data from them is nowhere to be seen. So, how exactly is this data being used internally within institutions? And what work is being done to build on the findings?
This autumn Anna Bull and Wonkhe will curate a series of articles on how UK universities are gathering and using data on gender-based violence and harassment, academics, student support staff, students’ union representatives, professional bodies, and policy experts. We will explore the barriers and enablers to collecting, and effectively using, data on gender-based violence and harassment – if you’re interested in getting involved, get in touch.