Sexual misconduct by UK university staff is rife, research finds


Sexual misconduct by university staff is rife on campuses, with more than four in 10 students reporting that they have suffered unwelcome advances and assault, including sexualised comments, inappropriate touching and rape, research shows.

In a survey of 1,839 current and former students by the National Union of Students (NUS) and campaigners the 1752 Group, to be published on Tuesday, 41% of respondents said they had faced unwelcome sexual advances and innuendo from university staff.

Of the 1,535 current students surveyed, one in eight (12%) disclosed being touched by a member of staff in a way that made them uncomfortable, with women twice as likely as men to suffer this form of unwanted behaviour.

The study, Power in the Academy: Staff Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education, warns that the sector is “not currently a safe environment”, with many students facing “sexualised touching, comments or even threats from staff members”. It raises particular concern over the finding that the vast majority of perpetrators are academic staff, who have “power over students’ academic success, wellbeing and career” prospects. More than 60% of respondents said the perpetrator was a man.

Thirty-five current and 30 former students reported that they had experienced non-consensual sexual contact from staff, while nine current and six former students disclosed that they had suffered sexual assault or rape. Under UK law “inappropriate touching and groping” also constitutes sexual assault, although the report does not specify this.

The survey also warns that universities are failing to respond appropriately to the scale of the problem. It found that less than 10% of victims reported staff sexual misconduct, while more than half of those who did said their university did not respond adequately, either by blocking their complaint or making it difficult to report an incident.

Only a quarter of those who reported staff sexual misconduct thought that their university had taken proactive steps to prevent such incidents from happening again. This reflects a recent investigation by the Guardian that found many universities had not carried out recommended reforms to support and protect victims.

Dr Anna Bull, co-founder of the 1752 Group, which was set up to address staff-student sexual harassment in higher education, said: “This report provides clear evidence that rather than the issue of staff sexual misconduct in higher education being limited to a few institutions this is an issue across the sector. It is unacceptable that higher education institutions, rather than enabling students to report staff sexual misconduct, are failing the vast majority of students who disclose, making it difficult or even impossible for some to continue with their studies.”

Not only were women more likely than men to suffer sexual misconduct by staff but they were also three times more likely to report being negatively affected, the survey found. One of the women who responded to the survey, a former postgraduate student at a leading London art school, told the Guardian that she had attempted to kill herself due to the trauma of being bullied and groped by a female member of staff, and she now worked in a different field to her area of study.

The report also found widespread unease about staff pursuing sexual or romantic relationships with students, with 80% of respondents indicating that they found this uncomfortable, and some students describing such relationships as “predatory”.

Hareem Ghani, an NUS women’s officer, said the scale of staff sexual misconduct should push Universities UK to “introduce specific guidance on student-staff relationships and highlight the power imbalance that exists in these relationships”. She added: “For too long, these problems have been at best sidelined and at worst silenced by institutions. We need to talk about the open secrets that plague academia, to challenge cultures of entitlement and stop abuses of power wherever they happen.”

A spokesman for Universities UK said: “Universities have made significant progress in recent years to tackle harassment affecting students. But there is more work to be done, particularly in relation to tackling staff to student sexual misconduct.”

Universities minister Sam Gyimah said: “Violence and sexual harassment in any setting is completely unacceptable and victims should report cases to the police. The government expects universities to take a zero-tolerance approach to this abhorrent behaviour so that students feel confident and able to report what they have experienced.

“Following the report from Universities UK’s sexual violence and harassment taskforce, we have asked the higher education sector to do more and implement their recommendations. We must now ensure that the work of the taskforce goes onto make a real difference to students across the country.”

It’s just been a disaster’ – a case study

A female first-year undergraduate student at a one of the top ranked London universities made a complaint in 2016 after a senior male lecturer sexually harassed her for several weeks.

Initially, he seemed concerned about her wellbeing. But his attention soon became creepy and disturbing. He invited her and a friend to dinner off campus. But her friend left, leaving her alone with him. As she suffers from anxiety she felt unable to make excuses to leave. During the meal he invited her back to his flat. “I just looked at him in shock,” she said. “He said: ‘Was that a bit inappropriate?’ I said yes and he just laughed it off.”

He also stalked her on Instagram, so she stopped replying to his emails and going to his lectures, and dropped out of the course in December, moving back home in the Midlands. “I did feel like a failure,” she said.

She made a complaint against the lecturer, which was passed to HR who tried to dissuade her from pursuing it. Finally, after 10 months, her complaint was upheld but the university did not inform her what disciplinary action had been taken, other than banning the lecturer from contacting her. “It was infuriating,” she said. “HR made [the process] as difficult as possible.”

After taking a year out, she is now studying another course at the same university, while her harasser remains in his job. “If I see anyone that remotely looks like him I get terrified,” she said. “It’s just been a disaster.”



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