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Universities failing to tackle sex harassment by staff, says report

Posted on: 2018-09-25 23:00:00

A number of UK universities are failing to tackle sexual predators on their staff as a due to shortcomings in complaints and disciplinary processes, finds a new report.

The small-scale study, by the 1752 Group, a research and lobby organisation which addresses staff sexual misconduct in higher education, accuses some universities of “making it up as they go along”.

In a number of cases allegations of sexual misconduct made by students against staff at the university had not been investigated at all, while others were dealt with inadequately, says the report.

Researchers were particularly struck by the serial nature of the cases they examined. “All but four of the staff members engaging in sexual misconduct were reported by interviewees to have targeted at least one other woman, whether grooming or dating a different student each year, or harassing, stalking and threatening multiple students and often other members of staff,” it says.

Of the 16 cases of staff sexual misconduct analysed in depth for the study, just one member of staff who was reported lost his job, though he later found work at another UK university. The majority remained in post.

Many of the interviewees (who were all women) did not report or disclose their experiences for months or even years; some said they were too afraid, others were unsure who to report to. When they did disclose their experience they complained to researchers of a lack of expertise among investigators, and a lack of communication and support from their institution.

Disciplinary processes dragged on, sometimes for years, and were “time-consuming, exhausting, and highly emotionally draining”.

One PhD student told researchers: “I put my faith in the process, and I really regret having done that because they didn’t get it right. They didn’t have the requisite training, they didn’t have the requisite understanding.”

Some of the students, who were mainly postgraduates, ended up dropping out of their studies, with serious consequences for their career, finances and mental health. There were reports of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts.

Another PhD student featured in the study said: “It’s the worst single thing that has ever happened to me and I think of it in terms of before and after that happened, and my life will never be the same. Five years later and I still think about it every day.”

The report, called Silencing Students: institutional responses to staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education, also looked at 61 policies relating to staff sexual misconduct across 25 UK higher education institutions. Relatively few “showed a detailed and robust approach”, it concluded.

The lead author, Anna Bull, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth, said progress had been made in some institutions, but added: “We need urgent action to improve institutional responses to staff sexual misconduct as well as much more robust oversight across the sector in order to make sure that students are no longer silenced when they try to speak up.”

Universities have been under pressure to address the problem of sexual harassment on campuses but until recently the focus has largely related to student-on-student misconduct rather than staff. Though the 1752 Group study is small in the context of a student population of 2 million and 400,000 staff, it still points to failings in the system.

A spokesperson for Universities UK , which represents and lobbies on behalf of universities, said: “Our taskforce on tackling violence, harassment and hate crime has recognised that more needs to be done in this specific area. This is why we have set up an advisory group to develop and publish best practice guidance to aid universities.”

A statement from the Office for Students said: “It is important that universities and colleges put transparent measures in place which make it safe and as straightforward as possible to report sexual misconduct by staff, with policies and processes that enable an effective response.

“If there is evidence of suspected systemic breaches or weaknesses in how a higher education provider meets its duty of care towards its students we will not hesitate to take action.”


Sally Weale, Education Correspondent












Source: The Guardian

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