I will forever admire the women from our Union and across the country who have fought diligently to tackle sexual assault and harassment of women on university campuses, many of whom have faced abuse themselves for speaking up. I am also grateful to UEA’s Vice Chancellor for taking the issue of sexual assault incredibly seriously through his work with UUK’s Changing the Culture Taskforce. There is, however, an area of sexual assault that most universities have been slow to respond to, and many refuse to even acknowledge. Last December I wrote a blog discussing the issue of staff-student sexual misconduct in Higher Education. The presence of unwanted sexual advances is more prevalent in Higher Education than many would like to admit, and has led to what NUS has described as the sexualisation of the Higher Education environment.
A recent report from NUS and The 1752 Group ‘Power in the academy: staff student-sexual misconduct in UK higher Education’ has revealed the scope of the issue and the power dynamics that exist between staff and students in higher education which are specific to this setting. It is the role that power plays which makes sexual misconduct in HE so concerning. In response to this research, we will be launching our own survey to explore the prevalence of sexual misconduct at UEA in the near future.
Many students at university have only just legally become adults, and their institutions have a very real duty of care towards them; despite this, universities often hold no policy prohibiting relationships between staff and students. Students are simultaneously dependent on academics for educational support, and in case of PhD students they are often dependant for funding and academic employment opportunities. Should a member of university staff wish to take advantage of their position, it is difficult for students to prove misconduct has occurred in the absence of university policy that prohibits such relationships. Further to this, students often fear future reprisal from others in their school if they did try to come forward. Even more alarmingly, those who are brave enough to report are often left feeling like their case has been mishandled and there is a perception that the perpetrator remains in post impervious to any consequences (Batty & Weale, 2016; Batty, Bengtsson, & Holder, 2017).
NUS’s research found that four in ten respondents had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour by staff. While it is important to distinguish between incidents of sexual harassment and less common incidents of sexual assault, it is equally important to understand that these incidents exist in a continuum of sexual violence where one cannot be tackled separate from the other.
NUS found that LGBT+ students and postgraduate women were the two groups most likely to experience sexualised behaviour from staff. Female postgraduates were much more likely to indicate they had experienced sexualised behaviours than female undergraduates, and this statistic increases again when isolating PGR female students specifically. For example, incidents of staff members attempting to draw students into discussions about sex, was reported by 29.9% of women PhD students, 7.9% of women master’s students, and 7.1% of women undergraduates.
We often use the word ‘culture’ to describe these wide spread behavioural issues, but for me the ‘cultural issues’ resides in the proliferation of sexualised behaviour from staff member to staff member. This is why our survey will be available for both staff and students to complete so we can understand the student experience, but also what university staff witness and experience themselves. We also want to know if staff have ever experienced attempts from other staff members to initiate or co-opt them into the culture.
Our survey will not aim to act as a reporting device, but instead a measure of how prevalent misconduct is at this institution. The data collected from the survey will be used to inform university HR while they develop a staff-student relationship policy, and to educate staff as to the nature of misconduct issues at UEA.
Staff-student sexual misconduct in HE is real: It’s the PhD supervisor who tries to initiate a relationship with his PhD student while at a social function, it’s the lecturer who tells his Associate Tutor that the girls in school are young and eager to please, and it’s the university staff member who is providing more funding opportunities and support to students they are sleeping with.
As I have been working on issues of this nature for much of my tenure as Officer, and pushed hard for the university to make changes on its staff-student relationship policy it is close to my heart, and not easy to be somewhat removed from the next stages of this process. Following the Officer handover period this project will be taken over by the new Welfare, Community, and Diversity Officer – Georgina Burchell.
If you need any support, or have been affected by any of the content in this article, you can contact: Campus Security: 01603 592222 or 01603 592352, Leeway: 0300 561 0077, The Harbour Centre: 01603 276381, Student Support Services: 01603 592761, the Police: 999, UEA Medical Centre: 01603 251600. Alternatively you can report an instance of sexual misconduct via the Never OK reporting form: https://portal.uea.ac.uk/neverok/report-it/reporting-form.
Batty, D., & Weale, S. 2016. Sexual harassment at university: 'I felt terrified to say anything. The Guardian, 7 October 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/07/abuse-at-university-case-study
Batty, D., Bengtsson, H., and Holder, J. 2017. Sexual harassment allegations: find figures for UK universities. The Guardian, 5 March 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/education/ng-interactive/2017/mar/05/sexual-harassment-allegations-find-figures-uk-universities