sexual assault at universities

Sexual assault reports at UK universities have more than doubled in four years

University of Lincoln has seen reports rise from 26 to 149

Sexual assault reports at UK universities have more than doubled in four years, with over 3,500 incidents reported since 2015.

Aberdeen, Bath, Brighton, Cardiff, Durham, LSE, Lincoln and Queen’s University Belfast are amongst those universities with significant rises in reported cases of sexual misconduct.

Though many universities suggest the rise in cases is as a result of new reporting tools, students and campaign groups feel otherwise. Students are now turning to anonymous Instagram accounts to report their sexual assault after feeling let down by their universities, and campaign group Empowered Campus told The Tab they feel current figures only reflect “the tip of the iceberg”.

The Tab requested data from over 200 universities across the UK. Of the 200 asked, 45 shared a complete set of figures for the past four academic years. Across those universities there has been a combined 112 per cent increase in the reports of sexual misconduct.

Sexual misconduct refers to a number of terms under the umbrella of sexual assault. The University of Nottingham refers to sexual misconduct as anything from “Making unwanted remarks, sounds or gestures of a sexual nature” to “engaging or attempting to engage in sexual intercourse or a sexual act where consent is not or cannot be given”.

Many UK universities follow a similar structure as to what they define as sexual misconduct, and this is how the majority of cases are categorised.

However an increased use of reporting tools does not mean universities are taking more action to support students. Just last December students at Warwick protested against sexual violence after a number of incidents at the university came to light.

An investigation by The Tab found:

• Over 3,500 incidents of sexual misconduct have been reported since 2015

• Over 45 universities have seen a 112 per cent increase in the number of sexual misconduct incidents reported since 2016

• In 2016 the number of cases at 45 universities was just under 250. By 2019 the number of cases reported had risen to over 500 a year

• There have been over 150 incidents reported this academic year alone

• Despite spending much of the last year at home due to the pandemic, over 1,100 incidents were reported for the academic year of 2019/20

• Bath, Brighton, Cardiff, Durham, Lincoln, Nottingham and UEA all reported over 110 cases of sexual misconduct since 2015

Unfortunately this rapid increase in numbers is not a surprise to St Andrews Survivors, an Instagram account set up in July last year as a way for students to anonymously share their stories of sexual assault. St Andrews Survivors’ goal is to expose the reality of sexual abuse at uni.

Speaking to The Tab, the student admin for the page said problems in the education system and the pervasiveness of rape culture are to blame.

They said: “Sadly, it does not come as a surprise to us that sexual violence at university has increased. There are still major deficits in the sex education programmes young people are being taught in, and rape culture is still prevalent at university.

“Students are coming to university and immersing themselves in groups and communities that laugh at rape and homophobic jokes, objectify women, subscribe to drinking and hookup culture, and slut shame, and they may not even realise how much they are contributing to rape culture.”

However they hope the rise in numbers suggests universities are doing more with their support systems.

They said: “In a more optimistic light, we hope that this uptick in students reporting their abuse to their universities means that higher education institutes are improving the support systems and reporting processes that they offer students.

“We hope that all of the student survivors who are coming forward to their universities are being treated with respect and empathy, and that they are receiving the help they need to be removed from unsafe spaces, to seek justice, and to access support for healing.”

Robert Gordon Survivors, another Instagram page set up for anonymous reporting of sexual assault, also echo St Andrews Survivors’ statement.

The admin of the page told The Tab they have found it “heartbreaking” to read the many submissions of sexual assault they receive, but also find it empowering to see so many survivors speak out.

Robert Gordon saw a significant rise in the number of cases reported over the last four years, however they are not alone.

Lincoln in particular saw a big leap in numbers. In the academic year of 2016/17 Lincoln received 26 reports, the following year they recorded 109 cases of sexual misconduct, and the numbers have kept on rising, with 149 cases reported for the 2019/20 academic year.

A spokesperson for the University of Lincoln told The Tab they set up a new anonymous reporting tool in 2017, which coincides with the rise in reports.

They told The Tab they wanted to make the community feel more “empowered” to report and hired additional staff to help with the tool.

They said: “Historically, we were concerned about the national under-reporting of abusive behaviours among young people. In 2017 we put in place a new, simple, and anonymous reporting system and launched a cross university campaign, in collaboration with our Students’ Union, to help more people across our community feel empowered to report inappropriate behaviour.

“We appointed additional expert support staff and quickly saw more students coming forward without fear, in a positive and supportive environment, where abuse and harassment is not tolerated. While behind every reported incident of misconduct there is an individual, by raising awareness and enhancing reporting processes we aim to put ourselves in a position to provide help and support to everyone who needs it.

“It is vital to us that students feel empowered to speak out, knowing their voice will be heard. The campaign did that and a number of other universities are looking at what we have done and are looking to emulate our approach. We want all universities to take abuse, hate, bullying and racism as seriously as we do at Lincoln and to tackle historic under-reporting once and for all.”

Similarly to Lincoln, many universities haves set up a Report and Support tool in the last few years and this is usually when the reported number of cases increases.

Despite the rise in being able to report sexual misconduct, the tools are often anonymous making it difficult to progress cases further. In the instance when cases are progressed, many universities will not update the survivor of the progress of their case, and the punishment for sexual misconduct varies. Some cases see students banned from universities all together, whereas for others not going to the SU bar is their only form of punishment. Survivors often receive letters from their attacker as part of the university’s resolution of the case.

The introduction of these new tools may seem to be helping but it cannot be denied sexual assault is rising at UK universities. This academic year alone has seen over 150 cases of sexual misconduct reported at a number of universities across the country. This is happening in a year when the majority of students are meant to be at home or with a limited social circle and yet they are still experiencing assault.

Universities claim to care about their students, but when numbers keep rising, how are students meant to feel protected?

Last year the BBC discovered many universities were offering students money to cover up their sexual assault. Nearly a third of universities have used NDAs to stop students going public about sexual assault, bullying and poor teaching since 2016.

Not only are students being silenced but their attackers are often allowed back onto campus. At the end of last year a student at Warwick told The Tab her attacker had been allowed to remain on campus to complete his degree, despite admitting to sexual misconduct. Following an internal investigation by Warwick the student was found to have committed sexual misconduct, but the only punishment he faced was the suggestion he be banned from student accommodation and facilities.

At the time a spokesperson for Warwick told The Tab sexual misconduct will not be tolerated.

They said: “Although we cannot comment on an individual case, our policy on sexual misconduct is clear – it will not be tolerated. If individuals are found to have broken our values, either by the Police or by our own comprehensive disciplinary processes, we impose sanctions.”

Students are fed up of not being supported. At the end of December last year, students at Warwick University protested against sexual violence and a petition to get the university to take action has reached nearly 70,000 signatures.

It is not just at Warwick where sexual assault is a problem, this is happening at all universities across the UK. A survey conducted by Empowered Campus found one in five female students have been sexually assaulted whilst at university.

Empowered Campus told The Tab they were “saddened” to hear the rise in cases and think this is just the “tip of the iceberg”.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story contact Refuge on their free 24/7 helpline 0808 2000 247 or contact Rape Crisis online for a free confidential chat helpline.

The Tab’s Do Better campaign is putting a focus on the rising student sexual assault problem. Universities need to do more to support students and the culture around sexual assault needs to change.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share with us – whether it’s about lack of support from uni, problematic sports socials, assault in lockdown or anything you think needs to be heard, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]