Universities need to learn from survivors of gender-based violence

Drawing on interviews with staff and students who have reported gender-based violence to their universities, Anna Bull explains how their insights could be used to create systems for supporting survivors

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

Staff and students who have reported gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) have valuable perspectives on how to tackle this issue as well as improve institutional reporting systems.

Systemically gathering and analysing data from those who’ve been through reporting processes should be part of a data-driven approach to tackling GBVH, particularly given incentives in policy and funding that have also required higher education institutions (HEIs) to include student and survivor voice in initiatives to tackle GBVH.

But it is not. A 2019 evaluation of HEFCE Catalyst funding provided to over 60 HEIs across the UK found that “the involvement of students making reports or those responding to allegations in developing providers’ strategic response to the […] recommendations was low across all providers.”

More recently, the OfS, as part of their 2021 statement of expectations on how HEIs should be addressing harassment and sexual violence, require that “higher education providers should appropriately engage with students to develop and evaluate systems, policies and processes to address harassment and sexual misconduct” including “learning from the experience of students who have been involved in reports or investigations”.

In a 2022 survey – responded to by 68 tertiary institutions – evaluating the impact of the statement of expectations, 77 per cent had engaged with students’ unions on this issue, while only around one-third of respondents had engaged with reporting and responding students to evaluate their approach.

The majority of HEIs are not gathering data from survivors and/or reporting or responding students to inform their work in this area. For staff survivors and reporting parties, engagement is likely even lower.

If we listened, what would we hear?

To date, I have carried out research involving interviews with 43 staff and students who have reported GBVH to their UK HEI. This data comes from two studies: Silencing Students, for which interviews were carried out in 2018, and Higher Education After #MeToo, for which interviews were carried out by Erin Shannon and myself between 2020-21. In total, this sample includes eight students who experienced sexual violence from other students; seven staff members targeted by other staff, and 28 interviewees who had been subjected to staff-student GBVH.

Here’s what they told us about what they think needs to change.

Open discussion and attitude changes

An overwhelming concern of interviewees was for transparency and openness from their institutions in relation to GBVH and that the sector, disciplinary communities, and institutions must admit a problem. They believed that open discussions of this issue would help other survivors recognise and label their experiences and disclose and/or report them.

Interviewees who had been abused by staff/faculty while they were students wanted conversations about power and grooming and steps taken to avoid staff-student sexual/romantic relationships being normalised. One interviewee who, as an undergraduate student, had been in an abusive relationship with a lecturer argued for:

having the conversation out in the open […] a conversation around consent and power that centres the teacher’s or the staff’s responsibility and also centres, I suppose, cultural shifts where someone wouldn’t feel so scared to report or confront another member of staff.

Students who had been targeted by other students wanted HEIs to recognise the scale of the issue. As one undergraduate student argued, “I think actually recognising that this is a serious problem across British campuses is the first step.”

She and other undergraduate students thought that universities need to take responsibility for the situation that is being created for new students when they arrive into higher education by doing much more to address culture and consent among freshers.

Those who had been failed by reporting processes also wanted consistency between public messages about what their HEIs were doing on this and what they were told privately during their reporting processes. One undergraduate student commented, “I think [HEIs need] less trying to spin this about how well we did and more trying to be open”.

Education, prevention, and early intervention

Interviewees’ accounts demonstrated that awareness-raising around GBVH is needed so that survivors – whether staff or students – have access to the language to describe their experiences. They also need public messaging to be in place so that they can know that these experiences are speakable within their institution and learning community.

Another student who had been groomed and abused by a lecturer over a period of years noted the contradiction between expectations for students and for staff:

As a student, you have to read the students’ handbook, and you’ve got to sign that you’re going to act like a professional. Okay, well, hold everybody to the same standard. Don’t assume that the worst people that come into your institution are the students, because they’re not.

Another undergraduate student who was targeted by a fellow student argued that “education around consent isn’t enough”.

Interviewees wished they had had more understanding of GBVH so they could have recognised and labelled what was happening to them earlier. They advocated for education and training for both students and staff to understand sexual harassment, power imbalances, and other inappropriate behaviours.

An international PhD student who was groomed and assaulted by a staff member noted that there was compulsory training for PhD students on research ethics and every other research-related issue. She asked why there wasn’t also compulsory training on how to recognise harassment, abuses of power, and grooming. (This is an area in which The 1752 Group now offers workshops for PGRs and PGR supervisors).

Interviewees needed support mechanisms, including specialist counselling, academic support, and independent advocacy. They also highlighted the need for clearer professional boundaries, behavioural standards for staff members, and proactive oversight of relationships between staff and students.

Interviewees also wanted clearer mechanisms for raising initial concerns, including somewhere to discuss low-level concerns informally, staff knowing where to signpost students after disclosures, proactive responses to disclosures, and more proactive oversight of postgraduate supervision relationships, for example, through regular monitoring with options to stop problematic behaviour before it escalated. And some interviewees wanted options other than formal reporting.

Survivors’ voices in relation to reporting processes

All interviewees who had been through formal reporting processes had valuable perspectives on this experience, but none had the opportunity to give feedback. An interviewee, a professor who was obliged to report sexual harassment at different points during her career, noted, “it struck me that nobody from the university’s come back to me and said, “Okay, so how was that as an investigative procedure? How was that for you?””.

Some recommendations referred to basic implementation and support issues that are familiar in GBVH complaints handling, such as cutting the time it takes to investigate reports; removing time limits on reporting; providing specialist sexual violence counselling; ensuring academic support is in place; and offering independent advocacy.

Interviewees also called for more robust regulatory structures concerning GBVH within HEIs and greater scrutiny and accountability of HEIs from external bodies – echoing the asks of wider campaign groups such as #ForThe100.

Other extra-institutional issues raised included consistency across the sector in case handling – an issue raised in multiple sector-wide reviews!

There were concerns about the lack of information-sharing between institutions, most notably the lack of shared upheld findings between institutions – for students and staff. A further fundamental issue raised was how to ensure that survivors – not just responding parties – have rights within the reporting processes (also not a new problem).

Beyond process-related issues, interviewees noted that in order for HEIs to address this problem effectively, there needed to be an evident willingness to act. Interviewees were frustrated and bewildered at how unusual it was for serial staff perpetrators to lose their jobs. To them, this indicated a lack of commitment to tackling this issue.

Speaking out on social or mainstream media

Since these studies were carried out, there has been – in some HEIs – significant progress on tackling student-student GBVH, including awareness-raising campaigns on campus and hiring specialist support and investigations staff (an example of a data-driven approach to Lisa Brooks-Lewis’ work at Loughborough University). But as my research and the Office for Students’ evaluation have highlighted, progress remains patchy across the sector.

Nevertheless, HEIs should not be nervous about listening to reporting parties’ voices, as many of the recommendations from survivors were in line with the direction of travel in existing guidance and research in the UK context. Survivors will likely tell HEIs similar things to what they should be doing anyway.

Despite this, actual engagement with survivors and/or reporting parties remains limited. This could be partly because, as Sunday Blake and Jim Dickinson have highlighted in their chapter in this book, there are challenges in finding appropriate ways to include survivor voices without causing further harm.

However, in the absence of institutional fora for their voices being heard, these issues with reporting processes and a lack of openness and transparency about institutional failures often lead survivors to find other ways of speaking out. This can include writing in the media or on social media; taking legal action; writing within their discipline in peer-reviewed journals; and engaging in activism on this issue.

Many of these ways of speaking out – particularly speaking to the media or on social media about poor experiences – are not ones that HEI leaders tend to be comfortable with. So, it’s in everyone’s interests that survivors’ and reporting parties’ voices are heard within their institutions – which includes appropriate ways of this data being collected, analysed and reported on within institutions – to ensure that they are less likely to have to take these steps. Unfortunately, such speaking out will, and should, continue if adequate structures for hearing survivors’ voices are not in place.

To read more, the report Higher Education After #MeToo is available on The 1752 Group website.

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