An Epigram sexual violence survey has revealed several alleged incidents of sexually inappropriate behaviour from staff members towards students, the vast majority of which have gone unreported.
The findings echo a recent Guardian report, where prominent sexual violence legal expert Dr. Ann Olivarius described sexual violence on British campuses as at ‘epidemic’ levels.
The report in the Guardian, which sent Freedom of Information requests to 120 universities nationwide, revealed only one allegation of staff-on-student sexual harassment at the University of Bristol since 2011/12. However, of the 134 respondents in our investigation, ten say they have been aware of sexually inappropriate behaviour by University of Bristol staff towards students, with a further seven ‘not sure’.
Of this group, none believed that the incident had been reported and dealt with in a manner they deemed ‘satisfactory’. One student told Epigram that when a friend turned down a member of staff who sexually propositioned her, he threatened her about her academic performance. On reporting the incident to another member of staff the student claimed they were ‘instructed to avoid taking his units’ as the academic was ‘well respected in his field’. The student was not informed that any formal investigatory procedures had taken place.
The Guardian’s report asserted that in many cases, very little disciplinary action takes place – as those in charge of such processes often have many reasons to ‘silence the matter’. The University insisted that ‘both student and staff formal disciplinary procedures are fair and transparent.
‘They require the involvement of the alleged victim and must not interfere with any Police investigations. For understandable reasons, people sometimes prefer not to deal with such incidents through formal University processes and/or by reporting their allegations to the Police, which is why we are introducing the online reporting tool.’
The majority of respondents – nine out of ten of the group – said that the incidents they are aware of had gone unreported. Several of these respondents told Epigram explicitly about the alleged incidents, including objectifying and sexual comments ‘about female students breasts’ and calling one student ‘beautiful’ in a personal message.
Many students claim to have had boundaries crossed: one student described how one friend had been ‘asked to pose for a nude drawing on their own’ and another ‘asked if they wanted to go on a walk in a wooded area for a tutor meeting’. One student described how a friend had been persistently propositioned anonymously one staff member despite her clear refusal. A survey conducted by the Association of American Universities in 2015 found that reporting rates for sexual harassment, either by staff or students were 7.7 per cent.
Dr Olivarius told the Guardian: ‘most universities have no effective mechanism to stop staff from pressuring students into sexual relationships’. The University of Bristol is included this, as one of the 32 per cent of universities surveyed have no explicit staff-on-student relationship policy.
When asked directly to respond on the lack of a clear student-staff relationship policy, the University responded: ‘Student and staff wellbeing are our highest priority. We have a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment or violence of any form and clear policies in place to deal with complaints, via the Staff procedure for gross misconduct, the Unacceptable Behaviour Policy and/or Students Complaints procedure.
‘Consensual relationships between staff and students are covered by the University’s Conflict of Interest Policy.’
Sofia Doyle, a final year Politics and International Relations student, has just completed her dissertation on the subject of staff-on-student sexual harassment. She told Epigram:
‘Having clear policies on staff-student relationships at university is really important, and it’s really shocking to see that Bristol doesn’t have one. A lot of my dissertation research was about how no policy, or vague policy, on staff-student relationships and abuse effectively means universities are constructing the issue as something beyond their remit, as occurring within the private lives of their staff and students. In doing so, universities are able to construct the problem as not theirs; and if it’s not theirs they bear no responsibility for abuse, and no responsibility to intervene to stop abuse.
‘Turning away from the issue like this is part of what allows the abuse to occur in the first place, and the lack of intervention allows it to continue. If Bristol wants to show it cares about its duty to protect its students – and, as in these cases the majority of victims of staff-student abuse are female, its female students in particular – it should really be leading the way in developing a policy regarding staff-student relationships, with clear procedures in the event of abuse.
‘It’s also important to note that policies aren’t enough; universities also need to have transparent and fair investigatory procedures; should make the effort to raise awareness of the issue; and educate its staff and students accordingly.’
The Freedom of Information request also revealed three staff-on-staff allegations of sexual harassment in the last six years at the University of Bristol, of a total 127 found in the UK. A large number of academic staff who escaped the figures have also contacted the Guardian anonymously, citing that they were either persuaded not to report the incidences officially, settled for informal resolutions or fear for their career.
The University encouraged students to report incidents: ‘We want to ensure that any student experiencing harassment or bullying knows how to report this and feels able to do so. We are now in the process of developing an online reporting tool for survivors of sexual violence and other forms of harassment, which will complement our existing processes outlined in the University’s Unacceptable Behaviour Policy, the Staff Conduct procedure and Student Complaints procedure. We are also investing in additional capacity to respond effectively to such reports.
‘Students can also raise concerns with their Senior Tutor, Personal Tutor, Student Advisor or indeed any member of staff who can signpost them to the appropriate procedure or, where applicable, take the matter forward themselves if the student is unable to do so. Our Complaints Officer is currently visiting all Schools to talk about the Acceptable Behaviour Policy in relation to the Student Complaints Procedure.’