05/04/2018 09:22 BST | Updated 05/04/2018 09:24 BST

How Universities Are Failing Students On Staff Sexual Misconduct

Four in ten respondents have experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from staff

Bunlue Nantaprom / EyeEm via Getty Images

Over the past year, the NUS Women’s Campaign has been working with The 1752 Group to conduct research on staff-student sexual misconduct in UK higher education. On Wednesday, we were thrilled to announce the publication of our ground-breaking report “Power in the Academy: Staff Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education”. 

The report was commissioned amidst increasing concerns about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct between staff and students in higher education institutions. The case of Allison Smith, a student at the University of Sussex who suffered domestic abuse from a member of staff highlighted the inadequacy of university action, after the perpetrator was allowed to remain in post. The surfacing of multiple historic and recent allegations at Goldsmiths, University of London also threw light on a culture of sexual harassment. 

Key findings from the report include:

  • 4 in 10 respondents had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from staff;
  • women are twice as likely to experience misconduct compared to their male counterparts - with LGBT+ women most likely to have experienced misconduct;
  • Postgraduate women student, in particular, experience staff-student misconduct at a higher rate.

The “Power in the Academy” report is the first step towards understanding student-staff misconduct in the UK. The findings are sobering and demonstrates the urgent need for action. Higher education is an environment where casual misconduct, harassment, and sexism are rife, and where sexualised and sexist behaviours are culturally embedded. 

Perhaps it’s worth stating, the study does not intend to feed into the sensationalist reporting that often accompanies sexual misconduct in higher education. Rather, it attempts to locate student-staff misconduct as part of a continuum of sexism and sexual violence in universities (and society more broadly) and lobby for meaningful change in the sector.  

It is well known, for example, that harassment and gendered violence is a reality for many in academia. Our Hidden Marks Report (2010) was particularly influential in uncovering the scope of these experiences for women students. Indeed, the research found that 2 in 3 women students had experienced some form of harassment, whilst 1 in 7 had experienced serious sexual assault. The most recent study conducted by Revolt Sexual Assault echoes these findings, and reinforced calls for universities to introduce robust guidelines. 

However, the issue of student-staff misconduct is much less researched. Until now, the most recent study of staff-student misconduct in the UK dates back to 1995; 23 years ago. As such, Universities UK (UUK) have been unable to issue effective guidance on the matter. As it stands, one in three institutions have no policies on student-staff relationships.

A lack of research in this area, combined with wide-scale institutional failings has meant that we had very little idea of students’ experiences. 

The “Power in the Academy: Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education” report intends to bridge this gap and provide a holistic understanding of staff-student sexual misconduct; how it manifests, how students perceive their relationship with staff, who is disproportionately affected and, above all, how institutions are responding. 

Thus, it is crucial that the findings of this report influence meaningful change and ensure an institution-wide approach to tackling harassment. For one, we need to ensure that there are accessible reporting tools and clear signposting around student-staff incidents. 

For example, our report found that universities are failing in their response to staff sexual misconduct. Only one in ten respondents who experienced staff sexual misconduct reported it to their institution. Of those who reported to their institution, over a half believed that their institution did not respond adequately to their concerns. More worryingly, just under 31% of respondents said that their institution had suggested their experience might affect the reputation of the institution. 

If there is underreporting it signals a wider institutional failing; a lack of confidence in the system and a reporting tool that fails to empower students. 

Most importantly, we need to ensure training is provided to academics who teach, at all levels.  This is especially true for postgraduate students who are not given appropriate training or guidelines for how to interact with students - this leaves both parties vulnerable. 

We must remember, above all, that we cannot afford a knee-jerk response to this as it would risk endangering students even more. 

Hareem Ghani is the NUS women’s officer