Mia Lui reports on the way forward for supporting students’ safety.
It is now difficult to imagine a time in which #MeToo was not a principle phrase within our vocabulary. Over the last year, a wave of revelations hit the headlines, shaking the foundations of large industries and organisations. The scope of the campaign points to a problem that extends well beyond Hollywood – and academic institutions are by no means exempt. A survey of 4,500 students published in March by campaign group Revolt Sexual Assault and education website The Student Room found that more than three in five students have been sexually assaulted or harassed at university.
UK universities have been accused of failing to tackle the issue, many of them not implementing the reforms recommended by a Universities UK taskforce in October 2016. A UUK report published in March did indicate that some progress had been made in dealing with misconduct, but this was variable and limited to specific institutions. Research carried out by the Guardian also showed wide discrepancies in the ways universities record incidents, despite one of the UUK recommendations being a centralised reporting system.
However, this issue is not limited to the student body, as multiple investigations this year have found misconduct by staff in UK universities to be at epidemic levels. A breakthrough investigation conducted by the NUS was released in April 2018, publishing findings involving more than 1,800 students across UK universities; only one in 10 students who have experienced sexual misconduct by staff reported the incident, whilst 90% of those who did felt that their university had failed them.
UCL is planning to publish annual data on harassment, bullying, and sexual misconduct to improve transparency after the Guardian reported that victims of sexual misconduct in the university’s science faculty were unhappy with how complaints were processed by the institution. Michael Arthur, UCL Provost, publicly addressed the issue: “UCL has learned from past cases and I will be doing my utmost to drive through the necessary improvements to ensure that going forward, our values of respect and tolerance are upheld by all.” He also said that he is personally overseeing UCL’s new strategy to address sexual misconduct. Whilst the prospect of “going forward” is encouraging, it does provoke the question: does it take national news coverage to impel the university to effectively tackle sexual harassment?
The Full Stop campaign, which aims to “develop an institution-wide strategy for addressing sexual harassment”, is still in its early stages following a conference held in June 2017. The Preventing Sexual Misconduct Strategy Group was also established around this time, whose primary objectives were to re-examine existing systems of processing sexual misconduct complaints, as well as recommending new prevention strategies and providing increased support to victims. Yet development of the Full Stop campaign has taken more than a year, and reforms of UCL policy have not made a visible impact.
Several other new measures for improving responses to violence are currently in the works at UCL. Training for 1,000 staff members has already been introduced, which will be expanded to a further 2,000 staff this year. UCL is also planning to introduce an online tool called Report and Support, aimed at facilitating reports of abuse and providing support to those affected. Most importantly, this will provide a single point of contact for students and staff who have been affected by harassment or violence, and are in need of help or advice. The tool is not limited to sexual misconduct, instead functioning as a space for anyone affected by any type of bullying, harassment or violence.
Report and Support is currently used in several UK universities, including Manchester and Goldsmiths. UCL’s version is scheduled for release in Spring 2019. It has two functions: reporting cases of violence and receiving support. The person reporting can either remain anonymous or be put in contact with a university advisor. Although the university cannot investigate anonymous reports, these will allow greater understanding of where and how violence occurs. Reporting is followed by a meeting with a trained member of staff who will provide full information and support to those undergoing the reporting process.
The introduction of a single online reporting tool brings a long-awaited unification of UCL’s approach to the issue. Reporting mechanisms at UCL have been a source of dissatisfaction among students for years, as they were considered unclear, difficult, and often humiliating. The process could last for months with no resolution, and students were unaware of the outcome of their report, leading many to ultimately withdraw from the process.
Despite years of lobbying from the Students’ Union for a change in policy, there had been no clear leadership from the university until the Provost declared this issue an institutional priority in 2017 and appointed a Preventing Sexual Misconduct Manager. The Union started its ‘Zero Tolerance’ action plan calling for new policy and procedures back in 2016. In a meeting in October, the Registrar and Head of Student Support and Wellbeing halted proceedings, delaying the new procedures going live for students in April 2019, as was previously agreed this summer. The Union’s Women’s Officer, Abeni Olayinka Adeyemi, raised concerns at the Preventing Sexual Misconduct Strategy Group and secured backing; the Provost confirmed that the new policies would be introduced for students by whatever means necessary.
It is the responsibility of universities to protect their students from all kinds of violence, which necessarily includes a multi- layered approach. The urgency for change was aptly summarised by the NUS Women’s Officer: “Universities can no longer plead ignorance: sexual violence on campuses is still at crisis point and they must act now.” It is imperative to both understand and take seriously this increasingly prevalent and dangerous issue. Efforts being undertaken by UCL reflect its awareness of the issue and its commitment to tackling it, but they still remain indefinite.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.