Unis have been running consent classes for years, but they’re not enough

If the classes are optional, then so is consent

TW: Sexual harassment and assault

Only five major UK universities hold mandatory consent classes. It’s become painfully unavoidable just how common and normalised sexual assault is, but universities tackle it with a lack of urgency. This is not simply an excusable oversight, it’s a skeleton in the closet of universities across the country.

It’s not that universities aren’t aware of the problem – many attempt to tackle it with consent classes. But with the vast majority of universities making these classes “optional”, it’s more than likely you’ve never even heard of such a thing. The consent classes universities hold simply aren’t enough to challenge this epidemic of sexual assault and harassment.

If consent classes aren’t mandatory, then asking for consent seems optional

The voluntary nature of consent classes sets the tone for a university’s entire approach to sexual assault and misconduct. Fundamentally, it feels like an afterthought.

You barely even have to spend a day on a university campus to realise that the average student approaches their nine-grand degree with the same mindset. They’ll show up if they feel like it. If it requires getting out of bed before lunchtime, attendance becomes even more sparse.

But this is reality – it’s not a secret, and universities know it. What’s worse, they often even actively anticipate it. Most freshers have experienced an overfilled lecture hall in the first few weeks of term. Eventually, attendance will dwindle to a dedicated few students and not only will you no longer have to sit on the steps, but you might have an entire row to yourself. If universities don’t expect intelligent and capable students to attend lectures even for their benefit, they must also presume the same for extra-curricular activities.

If students don’t feel ‘compelled’ to go, then make them

Of course, it doesn’t seem fair to say that a university expects almost nothing of its students. To get anywhere near being accepted into a university requires hours of dedication. Prospective students have to revise for A Levels, write a personal statement and potentially attend interviews. This expectation of excellence is not dropped after enrolment – even throughout a pandemic, students had to meet academic deadlines, often at the cost of their mental health.

So it’s not that universities can’t hold their students to high expectations, but they no longer want to.

By claiming that they can’t “compel” students to participate in consent classes, universities are inadvertently exposing the type of people they believe their establishment to be made up of. We can believe that this attitude is in the minority, but that’s irrelevant if the worst offenders are not educated as a result. Making consent classes mandatory might seem condescending to the well-informed. Still, at least it would avoid anyone slipping through the cracks.

Universities know students come from lots of different backgrounds

An easy cop-out might be to insinuate that this is not the role of higher education, and say these behaviours must be taught at an early age for any chance of success. But universities know and they accept students from a wide range of backgrounds.

Many academic courses anticipate that not all students will have previously studied the subject at A Level. However, this is not always seen as a disadvantage, and those tackling the content for the first time are just as capable of achieving the top grades.

If students are not expected to begin their studies with the same academic knowledge, it seems a bit of a stretch to assume they have somehow all received impeccable training on consent – or any social issues whatsoever. Once again, students are only expected to catch up to their peers when it comes to their academic work.

A lack of commitment will always lead to a lack of outcome

Despite a seemingly total lack of devotion to any form of social change, universities frequently claim they will assess their watered-down policies at the end of each academic year. It doesn’t make sense to evaluate something so half-arsed – even if campuses across the country transformed into utopias overnight, this would be more of a nice surprise than a strategised outcome from the optional classes.

On the unfortunate flip-side, when optional consent classes change nothing and cases of sexual assault and harassment continue to skyrocket, universities can simply pat themselves on the back for trying. “At least we offered – who’s left to blame but the victim? Maybe we could try an equally diluted approach next year?”

For most 18-year-olds, their university experience will hopefully transform them from half-baked adolescents into fully-fledged adults. But for this to happen, education cannot be exclusively academic. If universities truly expect students to educate entirely independently, why hold lectures and seminars at all? They might as well drop everyone off at the library for three years and hand them a piece of paper at the end. For many, this is not too far from the pandemic university experience.

Students are undoubtedly already treated as cash cows. Still, if they attend even one Zoom lecture this academic year, universities have a moral responsibility to make sure it’s this one.

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