Sexual harassment and assault are issues that are slowly becoming more openly talked about in society. Recent prominent cases in the media have highlighted that, where power imbalances exist, sexual misconduct often does too.
A recent blog by India, our Welfare, Community and Diversity officer, highlighted the UUK Changing the Culture taskforce and their report. This focussed on student to student incidents of sexual harassment and assault, which is a really important issue to tackle. This, however, does not cover cases of sexual harassment that are the product of power impower imbalance within large institutions. Sexual harassment doesn't just occur between students.
What happens when sexual harassment occurs between a member of university staff and a student?
Many students will go through their time at University without experiencing sexual harassment from a staff member, but unfortunately it does happen and at the moment and it predominately goes unreported. While the university has various complaints procedures, there is currently no central reporting system when it comes to sexual harassment and the university doesn't not hold policy on staff-student relationships. This creates a system where patterns are missed from repeated complaints, it is unclear where to report with some anonymity, and staff-student relationships become a 'grey area.' Incidents of sexual harassment and assault happen disproportionately from male academics towards female postgraduate students. A recent study found that 1 in 20 female Undergraduate students had experienced sexual harassment from a lecturer or University advisor – an already appalling figure that jumps to 1 in 6 where female Postgraduates are concerned.
A frequent concern when discussing sexual misconduct is the reporting systems in place and what they do. We frequently find that students wouldn't know where to go to report incidents and would have fears of repercussions due to reporting. I recently had a conversation with some female PhD students who all raised the same concern – what would be the point in reporting it? There exists a systematic issue in Higher Education – where low-level misogyny persists and creates an environment where perpetrators of sexual harassment are able to thrive, particularly when those perpetrators are in a more powerful position than those they assault.
Postgraduate Taught students are also at particular risk of experiencing sexual harassment and not feeling able to report it. This is due to the small cohort sizes of masters courses which means that individual staff have a huge role to play in the course of any one student. There are also concerns about career progression and academic success for those who do report, a concern that is also faced by PGR students. As a Postgraduate research student, you may be sharing a lab or office with someone who behaves inappropriately towards you. They may even be attached to the source of funding for your PhD, which would naturally cause concern about reporting and its consequences.
At uea(su) we have a clear zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment and assault of any form. We were really pleased when the University joined us in rolling out the Never Ok campaign, but we'd like UEA to look at its own policies with specific regard to staff to student sexual misconduct. We'd also like the University to train all teaching staff on sexual misconduct and immediately remove any known perpetrators, while increasing the provision for those affected – including increasing the counselling funding for SSS.
In addition to lobbying the University, we're also working with the NUS to promote a National Survey run by the 1752 group and NUS Women's Campaign. This survey will contribute towards a report by the NUS Women’s Campaign on staff-student sexual misconduct, which will be publicised by the Guardian. Your contribution will be important to help bring about improved safeguarding and support for students, and to form the basis for campaigning work by the NUS Women’s Campaign.
I'd like to encourage all Postgraduate students to take part in this survey, which you can find here