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UK universities turn "blind eye" to sex harassment – claim

By David Jobbins, 30 August 2016

Campaigners in the UK are redoubling their efforts to end sexual harassment of students by university academics in the wake of suggestions that non-disclosure agreements are preventing greater awareness of the issue.

  • A leading feminist academic who resigned from her post at Goldsmiths, University of London, earlier this summer in protest at what she sees as a failure to deal with the issue, a claim the university rejects, this week spoke of an "institutional blind eye" to the problem.

Professor Sara Ahmed said on her blog: "There have been many cases of sexual harassment in universities, but there is no public record of these cases. They have vanished without a trace. No one knows about them expect for the people directly affected.

"How do these cases disappear without a trace? Almost always: because they are resolved with the use of confidentiality clauses. The clauses do something: they work to protect organisational reputation; no one gets to know about what happened. They most often protect the harassers: there is no blemish on their records; they can go on to other jobs.

"But they also leave those who experienced harassment even more isolated than they were before (harassment is already isolating). They leave silence. And silence can feel like another blow; a wall that is not experienced by those not directly affected (because silence is often not registered as silence unless you hear what is not being said)."

She took exception to an official policy, common to many universities, that accepts sexual liaisons between staff and students will happen, but leaves it to the "integrity" of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.

"This is what I would call an institutional blind eye, the institution has declared it will look the other way," Ahmed blogged last week.

"This blind eye, this act of turning away, is here given official sanction: and it is what gives permission for abuse and harassment to happen. With integrity: no less."

A Government task force chaired by Nicola Dandridge, chief executive officer of Universities UK, is due to report later this autumn on issues surrounding violence against women in higher education.

  • Much of its attention has been focused on the "lad" culture in UK universities, but campaigners have drawn particular attention to the need for greater punishments for academics who sexually harass students.

Official data are not available, partly because the majority of cases are dealt with under university disciplinary procedures that remain confidential. Internationally, cases are reported but usually in jurisdictions such as the United States where they are more likely to end up in the courts.

  • The only UK data is taken from a National Union of Students report, which found one in seven women had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student. Over two-thirds had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment, including groping, flashing and unwanted sexual comments, and 12% of respondents had been subjected to stalking.
  • When the task force was established, the government acknowledged that many universities were involved in campaigns and initiatives to help guarantee student safety, and that Universities UK has been working on lad culture, sexual harassment and sexual violence at universities.

Goldsmiths issued a media statement in the wake of the claims that non-disclosure agreements concealed the extent of the problem.

It said: "Sexual harassment is a very serious issue and is not tolerated at Goldsmiths.

"It is sadly pervasive across society – and like many other organisations we have not been immune from the issue.

"We have confirmed that there has been inappropriate behaviour at the university in the past. Any allegations of sexual harassment are thoroughly investigated with action taken against those found responsible.

"Talking about specific cases is complex, and could lead to the identification of witnesses and those involved who have expressly requested anonymity. We would also not want to deter others from speaking up.

"While we will not talk about specific cases, we want to reassure our students and staff that we do take action and think collectively about how we can do better in the future."

The 1752 Group, a UK-based organisation working to end sexual exploitation in higher education, says that sexual harassment of students by staff members is "under-reported and under-researched".

  • It seeks a dialogue leading to action around staff-to-student sexual misconduct and exploitation in higher education, and offers training for both academic and professional services staff, speaking engagements, consultancy services and research on staff-to-student sexual harassment

"Higher education institutions in the UK need to be leading the change to support complaints, address cultures of abuse, and implement policies and procedures to eliminate the sexual misconduct of students by academic and professional services staff," the group says.

The NUS survey found that 61% were not made aware of any codes of conduct implemented by their university, with a further 29 per cent not sure. Two-thirds stated they were not aware of the procedure to report these incidents while 12% felt they would not be taken seriously if they did.

  • Susuana Amoah, NUS Women’s Officer at the time the report was published, said: "Reporting systems for sexual harassment are either lacking or not visible to students in a lot of cases, and this needs to change."

Ahmed says: "So many people got in touch with me after I spoke out about sexual harassment with their own stories of harassment and abuse in universities; with their own battles. Telling the story is part of the feminist battle. A feminist ear can be what we are for. The more wearing it is, the more we need to hear."