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Access Denied: Universities are failing survivors of sexual assault

Wednesday 20-01-2016 - 17:00

When you are a survivor of sexual assault, participating in your education is easier said than done.

If students are harassed and abused it affects their ability to access education and has a negative impact on their student experience and academic achievement.

The student who has to switch classes so they no longer have to sit in the same room as their abuser; the student who has to move halls because their institution has failed to remove a predator from campus; the student who feels they have no choice but to drop out of their studies completely because their sexual assault case has been badly handled - these students all have the right to access education but are unable fulfil that entitlement.

We cannot make equal access a reality without removing oppressive behaviours and structural barriers. Often, universities help to create and maintain these behaviours and barriers rather than prevent and dismantle them. This is where the student liberation movement comes in.

In 2015, the End Violence Against Women Coalition produced a legal briefing which outlines the obligations on UK university and further education colleges to ensure women students are safe and treated equally while studying.

The report highlighted that, under the Equality Act 2010, universities as public authorities are required to give ‘due regard’ to advancing equality of opportunity for people with particular protected characteristics, which includes gender.

In order for students with protected characteristics to equally access education and participate in student life their needs must be addressed.

A student survivor of sexual harassment or assault may have certain requirements. They may need guidance on how to report an incident, access to physical or mental healthcare and help ensuring that they do not come into contact with their abuser.

However, when the education sector discusses widening access and participation the focus tends to be on the beginning and the end of the student lifecycle. In other words, student intake and career prospects.

‘Access’ as currently practised assumes that the treatment of students during their education – and what they experience due to their protected characteristics – has no impact on their progression through education.



In the US, universities have Title IX, a landmark federal civil right that prohibits sex discrimination in education. This law requires colleges and universities receiving federal funding to combat gender-based violence and harassment. They have to respond to survivors’ needs to ensure all students have equal access to education.

Many American universities are under investigation for failing to uphold their duties under Title IX, and some internal processes created because of the act have been heavily criticised. But the law itself outlines something UK legislation fails to do.

It says: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

This clearly links discrimination and oppression to access and participation. There is no room for any education provider that receives public funding to justify avoiding their responsibilities and duty of care.

Legislation in the UK on such topics is scattered and vague. Lines here and there suggest universities and colleges are already obliged to ensure women students can enjoy their university experience free from abuse, but this is only if people consider universities and colleges to be public authority bodies.

In the context of the rising marketisation of our education system, there is debate on who our universities and colleges actually belong to.

The Russell Group and Cambridge University wrote a letter to the government last year in which they asked to be exempt from providing information under the Freedom of Information Act. The letter states that universities and other publicly-supported higher education providers are “increasingly supported by private financing and are effectively not public bodies for the purposes of FOI”.

If the most elite universities think they can opt out of reporting requirements because they consider them to be a burden, and feel they can pick and choose when they are defined as public bodies, how can we realistically hold institutions to account when it comes to actively eliminating violence against women?

Not only does the UK lack specific legislation on the requirements of institutions, the main piece of guidance for universities that addresses rape and sexual assault on campus actually contravenes current legislation.

The Zellick report, published in 1994, is still actively used by many universities. The report advises institutions to take a backseat and not investigate cases of sexual violence.

They are encouraged to protect their own reputations rather than support student survivors. The impact of this guidance can be seen in accounts of these survivors, like this former university student:

"My college refused to institute any procedures, disciplinary or welfare, to deal with sexual violence on the basis that it would violate the Zellick report. This meant that when I finally reported my assault there was nothing they could do but offer an informal promise that I would never have to live with my attacker. It was a promise that, without the backing of any formal procedures, they promptly violated.

“I only found out that he was going to be placed in my housing complex from a friend of a friend. I was forced to take on the responsibility of ensuring that I would not see the man who assaulted me on a daily basis. I subsequently left the college.

“As a result of the Zellick report, there was absolutely nothing in the college procedures to protect my mental health, or the safety of other women in college. My attacker had previously attacked and harassed other women and gotten off without serious consequences, again largely as a result of the climate created by the Zellick report.”

Not only do institutions have out-of-date guidance, they are expected to provide services without any external help. Our campuses are not courts of law or rape crisis centres. Our state justice system has time and time again failed survivors, and our government is slashing the funding to support services such as rape crisis centres and the benefits victims need to survive.

Whilst legislation may create requirements for universities to stick to, without a publicly-funded programme to provide institutions with appropriate resources so they can take action effectively, how do we truly expect them tackle a problem like rape on campus?

The NUS Women's Campaign and Rape Crisis have launched the Stand By Me campaign, which aims to get universities to reject the Zellick guidelines. Instead, we want to start a conversation with the education sector and survivors’ services about how we create new national guidance and services to support student survivors.

We are currently working with four pilot students’ unions to trial disclosure training, review care pathways, build partnerships with local rape crisis centres and develop best practice.

We know solutions to fixing this mess will not emerge in a vacuum, but through collaboration. The problem is part of a wide-scale issue of how society treats survivors and how the education sector values the welfare of students.

The student movement has and will continue to raise awareness of sexual violence on campus and the lack of support available, until the people in the right places make the right decision to stand by student survivors.

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