From halls to hell: our universities are failing students on sexual abuse

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

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February 3rd marked the start of Sexual Abuse and Violence Awareness Week, 2020. On Twitter, #itsnotok took form as the supportive adopted slogan. Yet in reality, universities across the UK are implicitly sending out the opposite message.

There are serious inadequacies in universities’ approach to sexual abuse. The last 5 years alone have seen nearly 2000 incidents of sexual abuse reported across higher education institutions. Not only is this an appalling figure as is, it’s also an underestimate. Among the many shocking revelations brought by The Student Room and Revolt Sexual Assault’s National Consultation is that only 12% of experiences are reported to the university or police.

Universities’ mechanisms in place to help victims of abuse are simply not good enough. 29% of victims who didn’t report abuse attributed their silence to not knowing how to do so. This is the most shocking figure of all: universities are failing students at the first hurdle, leaving them unsupported in their times of greatest need. Even when the formal routes for reporting incidents are used, student satisfaction is nowhere near the level it should be; of those subject to abuse, just 2% felt both able to report it to their university and were satisfied with the response. It is easy to forget that these figures represent real lives. They represent course-mates, team-mates, flat-mates.

These statistics represent a sickening proportion of student victims, one that warrants an iron fist response. Eradicating these crimes requires a powerful, unwavering commitment to do so, which not enough universities are demonstrating. Of 124 institutions which provided information to the BBC on incidents of abuse last year, just 33 used specialist investigators to interview students.

No one is expecting universities to wave a magic wand and put an end to sexual abuse. Ensuring students know how to report incidents and treating those reported with the severity and seriousness warranted is the barest minimum to expect. The ‘rape chat’ scandal involving students of The University of Warwick which emerged last year provides a perfect example. The investigating officer was also the university’s director of press - definitely no conflict of interest there. Of the 5 students charged, 2 had their 10-year bans reduced to only 1 year, with no explanation offered.

Across our universities, there is an almost apathetic attitude towards sexual abuse and assault from the agenda setters. This is due to a lack of real accountability. Admitting that sexual abuse is a regular occurrence, with over 2/3 of students experiencing some form of it, would be highly damaging to reputations these institutions work so hard to maintain. If only our universities would put students before their own reputations.

Steeped in criminal hypocrisy, politics students at Warwick were even subject to a compulsory ‘bystander initiative’ programme. The girls affected reported fear at the prospect at returning to university – their perpetrators could walk freely across campus. University inaction renders the whole of campus unsafe, with more reported incidents of abuse occurring in halls than at social events.

Making strong statements on sexual abuse is admittance of its occurrence, which universities are afraid of. How refreshing it would be to see, in this week of sexual abuse awareness, more universities taking heed of the University of Leicester’s approach. Towering flags erected across campus adorning the slogan #erasethegrey attempt to remove the deployed ambiguity defence. All our universities need to do so much more to send the message, explicitly, that sexual abuse and assault is not ok.

If you’re feeling threatened and uncomfortable whilst on a night out, ask the bartender for ‘Angela’. This indicates you believe yourself to be in danger, and staff can diffuse the situation.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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