Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places Contents

6Women’s safety at university

Sexual harassment at university: context and impact

143.During our inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools we heard that sexually harmful behaviour perpetrated by boys can escalate when left unaddressed and continues to be a problem at college, university, work and in later life. The Government has taken a number of important measures since then, such as publishing guidance for schools specifically on how to deal with sexual harassment and sexual violence between students230 and legislating for compulsory Relationships and Sex Education, partly in order to address these problems.231

144.The school environment is formative and has long-lasting effects. Universities UK, the representative organisation for UK universities, says that some students come to university and progress through higher education demonstrating ‘wholly unacceptable’ behaviours. It told us:

Evidence from the US suggests that university student perpetrators are likely to have begun offending while at school and that intervention efforts to prevent sexual violence may be maximally effective when targeted at adolescents. [ … ] In the long-term, effective school-based initiatives will ultimately result in a more positive experience for those who go on to enter higher education.232

145.There is no centrally-collected data about sexual harassment at university. A picture built up by stakeholders such as the NUS shows that women students experience high levels of sexual harassment, sexual violence and other unwanted behaviour.233 In one survey, 17 per cent of respondents stated that they had been victims of some form of sexual harassment during their first week of term, with 59 per cent of these incidents reported to have happened at social events or night clubs.234

146.A five-country EU study which included the UK found that the majority of incidents go unreported and undisclosed due to a range of factors including fear of not being believed, and a reluctance on the part of students to be thought of or to acknowledge themselves as victims. The research also highlighted the ‘cultural messages’ that underpin the sexual harassment and violence that women students experience: male students who consumed alcohol, had a peer network that supported sexist and violent perceptions of women and used pornography were more than nine times more likely to report committing sexually victimising acts against women, compared to men who had none of these characteristics.235

147.Sexual harassment at university takes place in a particular context. Universities are not only learning environments but places where students socialise, develop relationships and live, so sexual harassment can permeate a woman’s entire environment. Unlike some other public sexual harassment, women who experience sexual harassment at university may well live and study in close proximity to the perpetrator.236 In the NUS survey, 33 per cent of the incidents of harassment were reported to have occurred in halls of residence.237

148.As with sexual harassment in other environments, sexual harassment experienced at university can lead to psychological, emotional and physical harm, as well as negatively impacting victims’ studies. In one study, of those students who had experienced sexual violence, 27 per cent contemplated suicide or self-harm, 15 per cent developed an eating disorder and 15 per cent abused alcohol or drugs. Fifty per cent experienced a negative impact on their academic performance and 11 per cent indicated that the progress of their studies was delayed.238

Who perpetrates sexual harassment of women at university?

149.In the multi-country EU study, women students identified between 40 and 60 per cent of the perpetrators of the sexual harassment and other violence they experienced as being associated with their institution. Only a small proportion of assaults—most often in the form of sexual harassment—were committed by university staff compared with those committed by (male) fellow students. Much of the recent focus in the UK has been on sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence perpetrated by other students, but there is now a growing focus on harassment or abuse by university staff. One survey found that four in 10 respondents who were current students had experienced at least one experience of sexualised behaviour from staff.239

The Universities UK Taskforce

150.In 2015 the Minister for Universities asked Universities UK to establish a taskforce “to help reduce violence against women and girls on university campuses.”240 A number of institutions were facing claims that they had mishandled allegations of sexual assault and there was widespread concern that the ‘Zellick guidelines’ published in 1994 for dealing with cases where a student’s alleged misconduct could also constitute a criminal offence were out of date and did not afford complainants a fair hearing. In 2016, the Taskforce reported and made a number of recommendations to support universities. These included taking an institution-wide approach to tackling these issues, adopting an evidence-based bystander intervention programme, building partnerships with local specialist services, local police and the NHS, developing a response to disclosures of incidents of sexual violence and rape, and a centralised reporting system and a training strategy for staff.241

Who is responsible for women’s safety at university?


151.Universities are autonomous organisations in the UK and a number of individual institutions are taking a range of actions including developing training and support for staff who receive complaints and new policies on sexual harassment.242 However, the current voluntary approach has not worked well and there is a great deal of variation in the approach institutions take to students’ welfare. A progress report on the Universities UK Taskforce found that implementation of the Taskforce’s recommendations had been very variable. This was particularly the case in respect of developing prevention strategies and systems for collecting and recording data.243 Nottinghamshire Sexual Violence Support Service told us:

It is wrong that some universities are putting in a lot of work around this, while others appear to be doing very little. There should be a minimum standard that all universities should meet in respect of this, to include trained support staff, consent being a mandatory subject in the first year, information in freshers’ packs and adequate referral mechanisms in place.

Institutions may not be getting the support they need to take all possible steps to ensure that women students are safe. For example, legal guidance prepared by Pinsent Masons and issued by Universities UK for universities investigating student misconduct which may also constitute a criminal offence244 has been criticised as being too cautious.245

152.Bystander intervention programmes have been a key part of the response to sexual harassment at universities in the US. A key recommendation of the Universities UK Taskforce was that institutions in the UK should develop similar evidence-based programmes. The Intervention Initiative, funded by Public Health England and developed by a team at the University of the West of England including Dr Helen Mott and Dr Rachel Fenton, is an evidence-based bystander intervention programme to prevent sexual coercion and domestic abuse in university settings in the UK.246 An evaluation at a large university in the south west of England showed significant and marked decreases in risk factors such as students’ acceptance of rape and domestic violence myths, and significant and marked increases in protective factors such as taking responsibility and readiness to help.247

Office for Students

153.The Office for Students (OfS) is the regulator of higher education in England and has statutory duties under the Higher Education and Regulatory Act 2017. It is a public body subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty. The Office for Students told us it is funding more than 100 new projects, However, the OfS is not collecting data on sanctions that universities may have put in place in relation to sexual harassment, nor is it monitoring outcomes related to sexual harassment. Yvonne Hawkins, the OfS’s Director of Teaching Excellence and Student Experience, told us that “There isn’t a mechanism in place to link that to students who have made a declaration of any type of harassment.” For the first time in 2018 a national student survey is being carried out of all final-year students across the UK; this survey will ask about safety on campus. It is not clear, however, whether this will provide data on prevalence of sexual harassment, or gather information about institutions’ policies.

154.We asked whether the Office for Students would be able to carry out its regulatory role on sexual harassment and other issues of students’ safety. Yvonne Hawkins responded:

In this area, the Office for Students has been charged with having a duty to have regard to promote equality and diversity across the whole of the student lifecycle—prospective students, students on a course and students completing successfully. When the Department for Education consulted on our new regulatory framework, it concluded that the Office for Students could be most effective in relation to student welfare and safeguarding issues if it took a sector regulatory approach. We will be active with the mechanisms I have described to you on promoting innovation, galvanising a culture change, evaluating what works and what doesn’t, et cetera. We haven’t got legal duties; they reside with the [Equality and Human Rights Commission].

155.We do not agree that the Office for Students does not have legal duties in respect of women’s safety at university. It is a public body with obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty as well as the Human Rights Act 1998 and taking action on the safety and equality of women students should be a priority.

156.We informed the Minister for Women that the Office for Students was not collecting data on sexual harassment or on universities’ actions in this area, and asked whether she felt it would therefore be able to carry out its role effectively. The Minister said:

It comes back again to the point about data collection, doesn’t it? Data collection helps us understand the scale of a problem—the nature of a problem. I would hope that individual universities themselves would take a great interest in this because although, obviously, students are adults, none the less, it is a learning environment and an environment in which female students should feel safe and be treated equally.248

Asked whether universities should be collecting this data, the Minister responded “I believe so, yes.”249

157.The Minister for Universities subsequently wrote to us at the request of the Minister for Women and told us that the responsibility for collecting data lies with individual institutions. He said that the Office for Students plays a “pivotal” role in addressing sexual harassment in higher education at the sector level. The letter said:

In its Ministerial Guidance to the OfS, Government has requested that the OfS promote providers’ continued positive engagement with work to counter harassment and hate crime in higher education. [ … ] Government has also asked the OfS to work with providers, on equalities issues and support them in meeting their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, working with the Equality and Human Rights Commissions and other key organisations, as appropriate. [ … ] The responsibility for data collection relating to reported instances of sexual harassment is for individual providers. Underreporting of sexual harassment and sexual violence is common and it is important that providers recognise the value in collecting good and accurate data on harassment incidents. They should also continue to break down barriers to reporting so that students feel confident and able to report any issues.250

Central government

158.Whilst universities are public bodies with clear legal duties under the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998 to ensure that women are free from sexual harassment, central government has not placed specific legal obligations on them to deal with sexual harassment. This has been done in certain other countries.251 Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law in the US that ties federal funding to universities to a prohibition on sex discrimination and harassment, and the Clery Act of 1990 requires federally-funded US universities to report their crime statistics in order to provide transparency about student safety.252 Hareem Ghani, then NUS Women’s Officer, told us she supported the model in the United States because it puts the onus on the university to make sure there are guidelines in place, and to have a Title IX coordinator, provide survivor support services and take preventative measures.253

159.We asked the Minister for Women what she thought the impact on women students’ safety would be if the UK introduced legal obligations on universities to collect data, similar to federal laws in the US. The Minister said that she could see that “ there may be considerable benefits to it” and undertook to look into it.254

160.Sexual harassment and other violence against women is blighting women’s experiences of university. As a place where young people learn and develop their ideas this is particularly concerning. Before the #MeToo campaign, higher education was the sector in which the most significant action to prevent sexual harassment was taking place. There are promising initiatives in the universities sector, particularly involving bystander programmes, which could be embedded elsewhere. However, even here, the prevention work is piecemeal and there is no overarching co-ordinating body or monitoring system. Between the Government, regulators and institutions, we have been left with a strong impression of passing the buck on who is responsible for women’s safety at university. A voluntary approach has not proven to ensure that women’s safety is prioritised consistently across the higher education sector and it is now time for the Government to consider legislation.

161.The Government should put in place legal obligations that mirror provisions in the US to link state funding with a requirement to prohibit sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and to collect and publish data on the effectiveness of institutional policies. This could be done by introducing Regulations under s.153 of the Equality Act 2010.

231 Home Office (SPP0104)

232 Universities UK (SPP0086)

238 Girlguiding (SPP0035)

239 Our report into staff-student conduct, NUS website, accessed October 2018

241 Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students, Universities UK, 2016

243 Changing the Culture: One year on, Universities UK, March 2018

246 The Intervention Initiative, University of Exeter

247 Evaluation of the Intervention Initiative: A Bystander Intervention Program to Prevent Violence Against Women in Universities, Dr Rachel Fenton and Dr Helen Mott, Article in Violence and Victims 33(4):645–662 · August 2018

250 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (SPP0113)

252 Clery Act Policy, Clery Centre website, accessed October 2018

Published: 23 October 2018