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The Russell Group's unsurprising attitude to sexual assault policies

Tuesday 04-08-2015 - 15:29

In her letter of 28 July, Dr Wendy Piatt, director general and chief executive of the Russell Group of Universities, responded to reports about universities’ sexual assault policies. The message was alarming but unsurprising.

Failing to include any facts, evidence, statistics or references, Dr Piatt claimed there are no problems with policies, procedures or practices at elite universities in relation to students dealing with sexual assault. Our recent research projects at the NUS confirm that this is not true. The attitudes expressed in Dr Piatt’s letter offer yet another example of institutions trying to avoid responsibility and reputational damage by pretending there isn’t an issue.

Our 'Hidden Marks' report published in 2010, showed that one in seven women had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during the course of their studies. In 2013, another study, 'That's What She Said' provided detailed evidence of female students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education. In September 2014, NUS reported that 37 per cent of women students had faced unwelcome sexual advances, while more than 60 per cent of students had heard rape jokes on campus. There are endless case studies in the media addressing the difficulties some students endure when reporting or fighting a case of sexual assault.  Yet university leaders and the government still refuse to take action.

Only 15 per cent of serious sexual assault victims feel confident enough to report their case to the police.  With conviction rates depressingly low, Dr Piatt’s letter offers little hope to student survivors.  Universities have a duty of care to students, so the very least they can do is make sure individuals receive the support they need. The bleak response by the director general and chief executive of the Russell Group will hinder any progress which has been made in relation to supporting students on campus.

Our lad culture audit report shows that students’ unions are performing slightly better than universities in this area. However, we can only get so far without cooperation from institutions themselves. In response to Dr Piatt’s letter, many of us within the student movement want to know when universities will start taking the issue seriously. This is not a PR exercise; it is an issue of student safety and well-being.

University leaders should be honest about institutional weaknesses and engage with students to develop effective strategies which will tackle the problems faced. This would ultimately earn the respect of young people and their parents far more than attempts to brush the issue aside, hoping it will go away – it won’t.  

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