Sexual violence at university

Ella Rhodes reports.

Universities UK (UUK) has released a report and recommendations after examining sexual violence, harassment and hate crimes at universities. The report, Changing the Culture, was compiled by a taskforce formed last September, consisting of university leaders, students and academics. The group prioritised exploring issues of sexual violence and harassment after work by the National Union of Students raised concerns that universities did not react effectively in the face of such incidents. It makes a series of recommendations on addressing these issues through effective prevention and response.

The UUK and law firm Pinsent Masons have also released guidelines outlining what institutions should do in the face of student misconduct – particularly if that misconduct could also be a criminal offence. These guidelines incorporate changes to the law since the 1994 Zellick Report, which provided guidance for universities on student discipline.

Professor Graham Towl was Chair of the Sexual Violence Task Force at Durham University, which was cited as a case study in the UUK report. He was also formerly the Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice and is now Professor of Forensic Psychology, currently on a research sabbatical. He said the UUK taskforce should be commended for its far-reaching report. ‘Sexual offending is underreported, and universities have a very significant role to play in ensuring that there is a safe and supportive environment where victim survivors feel empowered to report their experiences. The empowerment of victim survivors underpins the approach taken and rightly so.’

The guidelines and report focus on prevention, with approaches such as bystander intervention training, along with clear reporting pathways for those experiencing sexual violence. Towl said this was the right approach and emphasised that governing bodies of universities should beware that even if there are low, or no, reports of sexual violence, a problem may still exist. He added: ‘As universities build on their work with student unions in addressing this challenging area we should anticipate that reporting levels are most likely to continue to rise. A problem surfaced is a problem that may be addressed, on both a personal and educational level. If reporting becomes the “new norm” as part of the everyday culture of universities this may also have the additional benefit of acting as a deterrent to some whilst ensuring that students get the support they need.’ 

UUK report and guidelines:

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