Cardiff Metropolitan University vice chancellor Cara Aitchison, who has chaired a UUK advisory group into staff-student sexual misconduct, was repeatedly criticised by witnesses over one specific concern – the lack of UK-wide survey data on the extent of sexual abuse in universities.
Aitchinson argued that that kind of research would be costly for an issue that was already widely understood as a problem, and she is “yet to meet a vice chancellor who does not think this is a problem.”
Though there were questions about the scale of the issue two decades ago, Aitchinson said that now, “there is no dispute across universities in the UK, that we have an issue. And there is no dispute that we want to address this.”
Of course, an issue here is that without proper prevalence research, we’ll never know if the situation is getting better – and in fact, for all the work that UUK and universities have been putting in over the past seven years, for all we know, the situation could be getting worse.
But more importantly, without prevalence research that can both get at different cultural understandings and perceptions of harassment, assault and misconduct that might not show up with simple statements – and without prevalence research that can show a large university which parts of its student body or corners of its provision or activities where students are most at risk or feel least confident to raise issues, we’ll be doomed to apply “one size fits all” approaches across providers and the sector. But then, this could back the argument against aggregated sector-wide data in favour of individual institutions understanding their individual student demographic and culture.
If the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture case tells us anything, it’s that sometimes the sector needs to take a risk-based approach – varying what it does across its provision to ensure that the most vulnerable students feel able to raise a concern. And as this paper on researching university students’ experiences of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment reminds us, there are valuable granular insights to be gained from this kind of research – insights that the sector is all too often unwilling to learn lest the results of the research damages its – or its individual providers’ – reputations. And, as another witness testified, knowing how many survivors there are does not tell us to when, or why it is happening, and which students are most vulnerable.
The committee and other witnesses were concerned that some estimates suggest that 50,000 students are victims of sexual misconduct – and argued that survivors of sexual misconduct were not being listened to in the absence of a sector-wide survey – which in the most conservative estimate, would cost UUK £2,000 per member intuition to conduct (Aitchinson argued the actual cost would be much higher). One speaker even described how a vice chancellor had met with 15 survivors of sexual violence to whom they relayed their stories in detail and that similar survivor stories must come forward and be listened to by UUK.
I winced at this. Not just for the capacity issue – after all, victim experience exceptionality is incompatible with the claim that sexual violence is happening on a large scale. And it is happening on a large scale – vice chancellors will have already all met victims of sexual violence, and many of them will have been victims themselves. But the expectation that student victims – on a sector-wide scale – must lay out horrific experiences as a precursor for institutions to act is misplaced.
As a student officer, I spent much of my time campaigning for better sexual misconduct policies with a victim-focused approach. I have watched many campaigners also take up this particular fight. Each movement has similar roles whereby there is a seat at the table for the designated policymaker, a seat for the designated campaigner, and a seat for the designated victim. These were three separate people. Do you see the issue? At the same time that this was happening a statistic arose that was widely circulated – 97 per cent of women were said to have experienced assault.
It was baffling to me that in the face of such a statistic, anyone would assume that policymakers and campaigners are one of the 3 per cent. Nonetheless, I refused as an officer – and still do – to allow my policy work to be given weight on account of detailing any experience that may have happened in my private life. What I did do was take a position similar to Aitchinson’s – that is, sexual assault is so prevalent in society – and universities as a microcosm – that it needs actively addressing urgently and thoroughly.
We know sexual violence is widely underreported. So, either underreporting ends up reflected in this proposed survey responses, and we do not get true insight, or students report in their thousands, in which case my concerns are with the capacity of UUK to provide the support participants need after such testimony.
The importance of survivors telling stories should never be underestimated. It is cathartic and sends a lifeline to those who’ve experienced such brutality that it is not their fault, and they are not alone. But we have our evidence. UUK has the evidence. We had it twelve years ago in Hidden Marks, and we had it last year with Everyone’s Invited. And survivors need to be supported in the proper route.
So while I think Aitchinson may be looking over some nuance of insight gathering – I think she’s absolutely right to be focussing on action – Universities UK’s members do need to get on with developing the pragmatic steps, capacity, and funding needed to tackle the issue we all know to be real.