Over the autumn term, Wonkhe teamed up with The 1752 Group’s Anna Bull to run a series of blogs on gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in higher education (HE).
In anticipation of the Office for Students (OfS) consultation response and GBVH prevalence survey – and while we wait to hear if there will be regulatory action in this area – we wanted to know what data is currently being held, what we can learn from it, and how it can be used to improve prevention and response programmes.
The series included contributions from academics, professional services staff, students’ union leaders, and others in various roles across the sector, as well as a piece from the regulator in England on the opportunities and challenges in gathering data on GBVH HE. Here is a little of what we found out.
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Data on gender-based violence in UK universities is hard to come by – both at the institution and sector level. In their 2019 review of progress on the Changing the Culture report, Universities UK found that “only a small number of institutions are currently looking at the impact and evaluation of interventions.”
While good practice has undoubtedly developed to some degree since then, it seems that what works in preventing GBVH is not accessible nor widely shared.
Chantler et al.’s 2019 study found that while 31 out of 71 respondents reported their UK institutions were doing prevalence surveys to establish baseline data, only a handful of these had actually published their findings. And no sector-wide lens or tool is currently in use to address the issue or evaluate interventions.
On the other hand, North America has a well-developed and established array of survey instruments available to explore rates of GBVH – including, for example, two decades of work by series contributor Bill Flack. These tools also explore students’ perceptions of safety on campus, their experiences reporting incidences, and wider attitudes to sexual violence. In the US, Title IX’s legal framework mandates universities that receive federal funding to connect survivors who report misconduct to campus-based services including counselling, advocacy, legal assistance, and other services. This programme of work in the US is only going to ramp up further thanks to new legislation requiring the Department of Education to survey students at all 5,800 federally funded colleges and universities in the US about this issue.
Contributions to the series cautioned that US-based survey instruments may not always be appropriate to the UK HE context, and that work remains to be done in the UK on developing data collection mechanisms that reflect the realities of students’ digitally-mediated lives – and experiences of GBVH – in the 2020s. The lack of appropriate tools also contributes to the absence of evaluation approaches in the sector.
What’s the hold up?
It is easy to chalk this lack of progress up to an unwillingness to address GBVH or a preoccupation with institutional reputation. And media coverage of institutional failure in this area often does come to such a conclusion. While the authors in this series did find reputational concerns to have played a part in resistance to GBVH work, many other barriers were also involved.
The operational readiness of the institution to respond to the issues the data would reveal was one repeating theme within the series, which contributed to the hesitation to publish data in this area. And perhaps rightly so. With the scale of the problem, institutions do need to be prepared to address the issues their GBVH data reveals. So we heard from Lisa Brookes-Lewis on how her institution established working relationships with police, charities, and other third-party organisations to address GBVH on campus comprehensively.
Concerns around the ethical design of research collecting data on sensitive topics and the impact of being surveyed on their experiences on student victims/survivors (and on staff doing the research themselves) are sometimes perceived to be barriers. However, four studies featured in our series found that surveys can be designed to account for students’ wellbeing; students actively want to participate in these studies, they do not find it re-traumatising, and they want to contribute to change.
In fact, in the case of staff-student relationships or misconduct, it is vital that students have policy input. Studies have shown that most students feel uncomfortable with staff having sexual or romantic relationships with them. These findings have implications for policies in this area; the views of those with less institutional power must be accounted for – or we risk doubling down on the power imbalance.
Working with students to overcome these barriers was proven effective in the series again and again and again. Universities need to pay attention to this. In a 2022 OfS 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 been engaged with reporting and responding students to evaluate their approach.
Talking the talk
The lack of a consistent approach or shared language across the sector creates difficulties in comparing what’s going on across it. Series contributors Ana Jordan and Sundari Anitha found in their sector-wide analysis of sexual misconduct policies that most institutions (around two-thirds) use generic “dignity and respect” or “bullying and harassment” policies to deal with GBVH. This is rather than tailored named policies that state the problem they are addressing in the name of the policy, such as “sexual misconduct” or “GBVH” policies. This leads to discrepancies in reporting. Susan Lagdon’s study found that 40 per cent of the students they surveyed reported they had looked for their institution’s sexual misconduct policy after their experience of GBHV but had not found it – perhaps due to ambiguously named policies. Roxanne Khan also found discrepancies in reporting for universities that did have specifically named domestic violence policies and those which did not.
In Anna Bull’s final piece for the series, staff and student survivor interviewees demonstrate that awareness-raising is needed to help survivors use a shared language to identify and describe what they have experienced as GBVH. Such awareness-raising and public messaging could deliver more accurate data about GBVH in HE and increase reporting rates as those targeted for these behaviours will then know it is possible to report it.
Prevalence is very high. ONS data has previously shown that students face a higher rate of gender-based violence than the general population. A major contribution of our series was to highlight recent studies that reveal a much higher rate than even the ONS has found. Studies in this series found rates of sexual violence of around 30 – 60 per cent during students’ time in higher education or 20 per cent within the past year.
Bridgit Steele and David Humphreys found that two-thirds of women and one-third of men report experiencing at least one incident of sexual harassment at the University of Oxford, and 20 per cent of respondents had been subjected to sexual assault in the past year alone.
Across Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, Susan Lagdon and colleagues found 63 per cent of respondents reported an unwanted sexual experience since enrolling at university. This means rape, attempted rape, unwanted sexual contact, and coercion or attempted coercion into a sexual act. Anna, in partnership with a students’ union from a UK university, found that 30 per cent of students had been subjected to sexual violence while at university – although these numbers may have been lower due to the data being collected during the pandemic.
Across the pieces in this series during any year, the prevalence of sexual violence is, therefore, likely to be around 20 per cent. If we add other forms of GBV, such as domestic abuse or stalking, these figures will be even higher.
Perpetrators and peer support
We also found evidence that it is predominantly our own students perpetrating sexual violence. Samuel Hales’ recent study of sexual violence perpetration among male UK university students found one in nine participants (11.4 per cent) self-reported recent sexual aggression. Both Anna’s study and the study at Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University found that the vast majority of sexual violence is carried out by male students at the same university as the victim-survivors. In Northern Ireland, two-thirds of respondents had a pre-established relationship with the person who targeted them. In Anna’s piece, it was even higher – in 82 per cent of incidents of sexual violence. And for domestic abuse incidents, 65 per cent were carried out by a male student at the same university. The gendered pattern is evident – it is primarily male students targeting women and non-binary students. Steele and Humphreys found that women were twice as likely to be subjected to GBVH. This data must inform intervention and prevention efforts for them to be effective.
We also learnt that who victims then turn to for support is vital. In Lagdon and colleagues’ study, for 69 per cent of respondents who’d had unwanted sexual experiences, the first person they told about their experience of GBV was a friend. Only one student in the whole study had told their university student wellbeing team about what had happened. This granular level of insight shows the importance of peer support schemes and peer disclosure training.
The need for data literacy and transparency also came through in every piece. When disclosures of GBVH rise, ensuring a data literate understanding as to why this is (that students trust the institution to disclose, that reporting mechanisms are accessible, and that students are informed and able to articulate what GBVH is) is vital to understand both baseline and post-intervention rates of GBVH on campus.
We know there is still a lot of hidden, unpublished data in the GBVH area. This could be partly because people working in institutions see the high prevalence figures and have understandable reputational concerns. By publishing three studies with high rates of GBVH in our series, we hope we can encourage institutions to have confidence in publishing the data they gather. Across all of the articles in the series, it’s clear that different institutions nationwide have high rates of GBVH. The question is, therefore, not whether there is a high prevalence of GBVH within an institution but, instead, what is being done to address it. This was a key message from survivors who had reported GBVH to their institution, as outlined in the final article. One of the interviewees’ main priorities was for their institutions to be transparent and open about this issue and recognise the scale of GBVH.
One way institutions can do this is by publishing as much of their data on this issue as possible – whether from campus climate surveys, from Report and Support, or on the number of complaints and the outcomes of these complaints. A handful of universities do the latter – including Durham, Cambridge, and Goldsmiths, among others – but it should become standard practice.
Interviewees were also concerned with the lack of information-sharing between institutions – most notably, the lack of shared upheld findings between institutions for students and staff.
This would signal that the institution is taking GBVH seriously by gathering and scrutinising this data, not denying the problem or “covering it up” as they are often accused of doing. Such transparency from institutions will increase the confidence of students who have not yet reported their experience.
The good news is that institutions which have now done this kind of survey have a baseline and can measure any changes over time to get a sense of how effective interventions are and can have data-informed conversations about precisely what the problem is, where it is occurring, and what interventions make a difference.
Intervention evaluation and prevention
The thing is, many institutions are now investing significantly in staff resources in this area, including employing teams with multiple specialist staff. But to make sure this investment is as effective as possible, we need to know more about what is effective in the work that’s going on – but alongside the previously mentioned lack of baseline data, there is also a lack of good quality evaluation around interventions.
There are, however, ways of measuring if intervention and prevention work is effective. A piece in the series on rape myths explains how surveying students’ attitudes that support and enable sexual violence can indicate whether a campaign, messaging or other intervention has altered the cultural norms around sexual violence on campus. Lisa Brooks-Lewis from Loughborough University wrote about prevention work for the series and explained how thematic analysis of complaints revealed issues with persistent/repeated behaviours of complainants, coercion, and alcohol misuse. This means that resources and attention were effectively allocated to central and lateral issues.
We learnt in the series that prevention action can also be taken using anonymous data. There is a myth that institutions can’t take action on the basis of anonymous reports, but two articles in the series disproved this. Vicki Baars explained how anonymous reporting can reveal patterns of incidents – which, in one case, led to police action – and Nicola Campbell explained how anonymous GBVH data can be used to inform campaigns, influence resource allocation, and intercept behaviour.
While data is not yet centrally collected across the UK or even any of the four nation-states (unlike, for example, in Ireland or Australia), there’s much more we can do with the data we have already collected, or that’s already available. This can be anonymous data from Report and Support or similar systems, or the many third-party organisations or publicly available data mentioned in the series from which universities can draw insight from.
And data use should continue beyond intervention and prevention. As Anna argues in her piece on listening to survivors and students who had reported gender-based violence or harassment to their institution, universities should draw on data from students and staff about their experiences. This group has valuable perspectives on tackling GBVH and improving institutional reporting systems. This is an important area because there is a considerable risk of both students coming to harm and reputational risk to universities if students speak out about their poor reporting experiences.
We know there is more good practice on gathering and using data on GBVH within institutions across the UK that we haven’t had a chance to highlight. While this is the end of this series for now, we would love to hear from you if you’re doing innovative things with data in this area, particularly around evaluation, intersectionality, integrating data on GBVH into institutional systems, hearing from survivors and reporting or responding parties, or adapting data instruments from elsewhere for use in the UK.
This data needs to be systematically gathered and fed into wider institutional data processes as well as openly shared across the sector. While in England, we wait for more insight from the Office for Students and potential regulatory action, it is clear that universities need to act now on GBVH – and institutions already have a lot of the insight, information, and resources to do so.