Do the right thing

Monday 11-09-2017 - 13:30

Hareem Ghani and Graham Towl take a look at why students aren't reporting sexual harassment or assault at univeristy, despite efforts to tackle the problem.

Hareem has been NUS Women's Officer since 2016 and is working with the 1752 Group to conduct a large-scale survey on student-staff harassment.

Graham is the former Pro Vice Chancellor Chair of the Sexual Violence Task Force at Durham University and Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice.


We need a dramatic increase in the level of reporting of sexual violence at universities if we are to contribute effectively to prevention, survivor/victims (physical and mental) health needs and also to ensure that survivors/victims have the opportunity to educationally achieve to the fullest potential.

University communities are uniquely well placed to address this societal and cultural problem and there is a civic duty to do so. Sexual violence is both widespread and underreported in society. It is young women who are overwhelmingly most likely to experience sexual violence (ONS, Home Office and Ministry of Justice, 2013).

And it was NUS' ‘Hidden Marks’ report (2010) which first gave such stark visibility to the problem of sexual violence at UK universities. NUS and student activists have worked hard to ensure that this issue remains firmly on the agenda of university communities. Universities UK have wisely followed the lead of NUS on this with some positive contributions on behalf of university communities – including the Changing the Culture report published November last year.  And, as a sector, there are some signs of change. However, progress has been variable, with still much to do. Universities UK have just this week produced a report sharing case studies of good policies and practices at UK universities to tackle sexual violence.

But what are the key principles that underpin ethical and effective approaches to tackling the problem? We propose three key such principles.

Principle one; Empowerment

One test of any university policy is the extent to which it does or does not empower survivor/victims. In practice this means having a confidential reporting procedure, which is solely for sexual violence. The reporting student should have control over the process throughout e.g. in deciding whether or not to report to the police. If university communities, in our view misguidedly, choose to take that right away from victim/survivors it will most likely result in much lower reporting rates with significant consequences for students - after all, only 15 per cent of survivors choose to report to the police in the first place (Rape Crisis stats). This will also mean that university communities have even fewer opportunities to support the physical and mental health needs of reporting students. That would be a failure of university communities in the duty of care to students and miss an opportunity to contribute to prevention. And this is an opportunity that university communities are uniquely well placed to grasp, to make a tangible difference in disclosure and reporting levels whereby those involved get the support they need. Low reporting levels most plausibly reflect a lack of trust in university administrations to provide a professional and appropriate level of support. University governing bodies need to step up to the plate and hold executives to account where there are low reporting levels. If we are to successfully empower victim/survivors then as university communities we should respect the leadership of the victim/survivor in driving a process that we support.

Principle two; Prevention

Policies and practices need to contribute to prevention. Students’ unions have predominantly taken the lead in the fight against sexual harassment. Campaigns such as the University of Manchester Students’ Union “We Get It!” campaign or the University of East Anglia Student union “Never OK” campaign have aimed to increase the visibility of reporting procedures, whilst also having served as a tool to educate students (mainly first year undergraduates) on what does or does not constitute acceptable behavior. This has been achieved through various means – including the NUS Women’s Campaigns consent workshop model and the University of West England Intervention Initiative Toolkit, which focuses primarily on bystander interventions. Bystander intervention can aid prevention as can, potentially, increased reporting. If reporting becomes the new norm this is likely to deter some perpetrators. Many students' unions have also helpfully chosen to train their bar staff via e.g.  ‘Good Night Out Campaigns’, so that staff can accurately identify potentially abusive behavior and intervene to stop it or report to those more qualified.

But it is for whole university communities to work together in tackling sexual violence. In addition to students, academic, professional and operational staff can helpfully contribute. For example, although there is often much commitment from students to deliver consent workshops for new students, there is a need for professional staff to ensure that there is adequate support in place for those delivering such training. And this means an investment of financial resources also. At Durham University there is a full time member of staff who specializes in the area of tackling sexual violence on campus, this is an innovation, which could helpfully be applied across the sector. Additionally specialist Rape Crisis staff, are paid to provide disclosure training for staff and students. These are concrete examples of what university senior management teams can choose to do if there is a commitment to making such investments. So, in sum, university communities need, we would argue, to go well beyond simply widely promulgating reporting procedures, important though this is, but only as one element of a more integrated approach to tackling sexual violence.

Encouragingly there are signs of a sea change with the Universities UK (2016) report exhorting university communities to work together across staff and students. An effective example of this may be seen with the Kings College London, ‘It Stops Here’ campaign launched in September, 2016.

Principle three; Health and well-being impacts

This includes both mental and physical health needs and responses.

Arguably there is more focus upon criminal justice related issues in the field than the health needs of the survivor/victim. This needs to change. An undue focus upon Criminal Justice considerations, especially if overriding the wishes of the survivor may very well further serve to reduce the likelihood of reporting.

University communities have safeguarding duties and the immediate safety of the student reporting sexual violence is the most urgent priority. This includes existing threats to their health from further potential assaults to Sexually Transmitted Infections. So, in practice this may, for example, mean a review of accommodation and teaching arrangements for the student. It may also mean an urgent need for confidential, easy access, emergency contraception, Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) testing for the reporting student. The protection and promotion of mental health is key too. Access to confidential counseling services and academic student support services e.g. the securing of any necessary extensions to deadlines and the possibility of suspending studies if need be, are important to have in place. Rape Crisis and Sexual Assault Referral Centres are services that university communities may wish to work closely with. Such partnership work can include advice on the appropriate drafting of policies, training and the provision of specialist counseling for students and staff – an example of this includes NUS’ #StandByMe campaign. Above all university communities are most impactful when working effectively together to produce shared solutions to a shared problem.

Future directions

University communities have the opportunity to contribute to the prevention of sexual violence, support victim survivors in terms of physical and mental health needs, and improve the chances of all students fulfilling their full educational potential.  Why wouldn’t we seize this opportunity especially given what an intractable problem this remains for society?

University communities are uniquely well placed to change the way that we think about sexual violence, as a sector there is pride in research and educational achievements. A radical increase in reporting rates will be the first sign that students trust their university communities in actively tackling sexual violence. We would both like to acknowledge those students' unions and staff who are working hard to address sexual violence in university communities, you are making a difference.

Hareem Ghani, NUS Women's Officer

Graham Towl, Professor of Forensic Psychology, Durham University

An edited version of this article was posted at Times Higher Education here.


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