‘I wasn’t supported’: Only one in 20 students would report their assault to their uni

A Tab x Our Streets Now survey reveals whilst sexual assault and spiking are on the rise, most students still don’t trust their institution to handle their claim

A new joint survey by The Tab and Our Streets Now can reveal nearly one in four students has experienced sexual assault at university – and yet – only one in 20 would feel comfortable reporting their sexual assault to their institution.

The survey asked over 1,300 students at more than 50 universities across the UK about their safety. The results showed eight out of 10 students would not trust their university to handle a sexual assault claim appropriately and eight out of 10 do not know where to report sexual assault or public sexual harassment (PSH) at their university.

Sexual assault refers to the non-consensual touching of another person. This can include a range of behaviours, such as touching over clothes, under/without clothes, or kissing.

Public sexual harassment refers to refers to unwelcome and unwanted attention, sexual advances and intimidating behaviour that occurs in public spaces, both in-person and online. Since members of the public have access to higher education institutions, these are classed as public spaces. Therefore, sexual harassment faced on campus is classed as PSH.

Most shockingly, our survey found:

• One in four students have experienced sexual assault at university
• Only one in 20 students feel comfortable reporting their sexual assault to their institution
• Eight in 10 students would not trust their university to handle a sexual assault claim appropriately

The survey also found:

• One in five students said they’d been spiked on a night out
• Nine in 10 students worry about spiking to some degree on nights out
• Nearly half of students avoid going on night outs for fear of PSH or sexual assault
• Seven in 10 students think their institution needs compulsory consent classes
• Eight in 10 students do not know where to report sexual assault at their university

The Tab contacted the 11 institutions with the highest percentage of students completing the survey. The six who responded – Warwick, Southampton, Newcastle, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Loughborough – all said sexual misconduct was not tolerated at their university and they had Report and Support tools in place at their institution. Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Exeter did not respond to request for comments.

Earlier this year we requested data from over 200 universities and found reports of sexual assault had more than doubled in the last four years, with over 3,500 individual claims reported since 2015. At the time universities claimed this increase was due to the introduction of anonymous Report and Support tools that are widely implemented at the majority of UK universities.

A number of higher education institutions including Manchester, Durham and York have recently hired investigators to deal with sexual assault cases with each case costing the university around £10,000.

However, the introduction of these new measures hasn’t changed students’ feelings of distrust towards their universities. Many students have turned to anonymous Instagram pages unaffiliated with the universities. There, they share their accounts of sexual assault. It allows them to feel empowered when their university has failed to bring a perpetrator to justice. Some students are choosing to do this instead of reporting it in the first place, because they fear the university will not act. Initially set up during summer 2020, the accounts are still active, with St Andrews Survivors sharing their 292nd story of a student’s sexual assault earlier this week.

Alice* is a graduate who knows exactly what it feels like to be let down by a university’s treatment of a sexual assault claim.

Alice was in her first year of studying at a Russell Group university when she was sexually assaulted by a male student. She was discussing the assault on campus with her female friend who had also been sexually assaulted by the same perpetrator. They were overheard by a coursemate who, concerned for them, reported the sexual assaults to the university.

A few days later the two women were summoned to the university under the impression they were having their first semester catch up. However, when they arrived they were met by the police and university staff and ushered into two separate rooms.

The staff members told each woman they had been informed about her sexual assault and she must submit a statement to the university. If they didn’t, they were told, they were putting the public in danger.

Though the university shared their condolences with Alice she immediately felt she couldn’t trust the university because of the false pretence in which she had been called to the meeting. The university told her they didn’t think she would come to the meeting if they had informed her of the real reason.

Throughout the meeting Alice said she was made to feel as if the sexual assault was her fault and to seriously consider what had actually happened during her sexual assault as it could be career-ruining for the male perpetrator.

Weeks later when the university plastered sexual violence awareness posters over campus, Alice felt incredibly frustrated at the hypocrisy.

“I wanted to scream because of what they were preaching they did to support students, they just didn’t at all? It all felt very fake, and fraudulent on their part.”

Since 2009 The Tab has consistently published stories of female students being let down, ignored and interrogated by higher education institutions when it comes to their sexual assault claims.

Less than a year ago a student from the University of Warwick approached us to tell her story. Muneira* had been touched inappropriately without her consent, an internal investigation at Warwick found. Muneira’s perpetrator admitted to committing sexual misconduct and said he “misunderstood consent”. However, Muneira’s case was soon closed, and her attacker was allowed to continue studying at the university. He was able to remain on campus, but was banned from student halls and facilities such as the SU.

Yet only a week before the results of Muneira’s case were released, Warwick’s Vice Chancellor emailed all students to say: “Warwick was continually trying to improve” following the rape group chat scandal.

Four years ago 11 Warwick students were suspended for sharing rape jokes in a group chat, which included messages such as “Rape her friends too”, “Sometimes it’s fun to just go wild and rape 100 girls,” and “Rape the whole flat to teach them all [a] lesson.”

After an internal investigation Warwick expelled one of the male students and gave him a lifetime ban. Two were given 10-year bans and a further two were excluded from the university for a year. However, the two students with 10-year bans had their bans reduced to 12 months.

Though the university may have wished to show their support by telling students they were “constantly trying to improve”, nearly a year later it doesn’t seem to have made a difference to how students feel. In our survey 63 per cent of Warwick students said they wouldn’t trust their university to handle a sexual assault claim properly.

Georgina Calvert-Lee, the lawyer who represented a number of the female victims in the group chat case, said the results of the survey were astonishing and students need to be able to have trust in the complaints process.

She told The Tab: “It seems to me astonishing that, four years after #MeToo, 63 per cent of students still don’t know where to report sexual assault or harassment within their university and around a half (48-52 per cent) wouldn’t trust it to handle a report appropriately anyway.

“This is a real problem given the high prevalence of sexual harassment (40 per cent) and sexual assault (21 per cent) reported by the survey’s respondents.  The sector is awash with regulator guidance and best practice expectations, and yet these do not seem to be filtering down to universities.  A good complaints process requires, at a minimum, that students know how to access it and have trust in it.  If universities are failing even these threshold tests then perhaps it is time for the regulator to issue some mandatory requirements.”

An unprecedented number of spiking cases this term has increased the pressure on higher education insititutions to protect their female and non-binary students.

Over 2,600 students believe they’ve been spiked this term in a poll we ran last month. And now our survey can reveal one in five of students believed they’ve been spiked, with non-binary students being the highest proportion of victims. Nearly all students said they worried about spiking to some degree on nights out.

Whilst universities cannot control spiking occurring in nightclubs off campus they are still responsible for their student union clubs and the messaging they put out. Some are rising to the challenge and others are failing to handle the issue properly, if at all.

During the height of the widespread spiking incidents last month, Durham University told students simply “don’t get spiked” as part of an online campaign.

The post read: “Drink Spiking is dangerous and something that you can prevent from happening to you and your friends. #dontgetspiked Contact the police as soon as possible in a suspected case so an investigation can be conducted and others protected”.

Durham has since deleted the posts and said they take spiking very seriously.

A handful of institutions are now taking steps to introduce safety measures. Southampton, Sussex, St Andrews and Lincoln are introducing drink testing kits inside their venues. The SUs of UEA, Bristol and UCL also said they are looking into testing. Leeds, Lincoln, Sussex and Oxford are amongst 13 SUs who are handing out anti-spiking drinks covers, lids and bottle tops. Many universities SUs are also including welfare training for their staff.

This report is being released on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The annual United Nations event has existed since 2008 and includes 16 days of activism campaigning for a violence free future.

Young women are facing an epidemic of sexual assault and harassment and yet the systems in place designed to protect them are failing. The murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens affected many women’s ability to trust the police. Our report shows female and non-binary students cannot trust their higher education insititions either, so who do they turn to feel safe and achieve justice?

Maya Tutton, the co-founder of Our Streets Now, says the survey results shows the disturbing situation women and non-binary students face and universities must be more proactive in supporting their students from violence.

She said: “These results paint a disturbing picture of the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault faced by students in this country. A shocking 1 in 5 participants reported that they had been spiked on a night out, with non-binary students emerging as the most prominent victims. Alongside spiking, public sexual harassment continues to plague students in and around their university campuses, with many experiencing it multiple times a month.

“It is clear current university provisions are at best ineffective and at worst non-existent.

“Gender-based violence compromises women and non-binary students’ right to education, and it is time that Higher Education Institutions take proper responsibility for this, by establishing a culture of trust through easily accessible reporting services, effective support systems and a zero-tolerance policy on PSH in and around campuses.

“There is a demonstrable and disturbing lack of trust in university reporting services from the student perspective. Universities have a duty of care to their students which is clearly going unfulfilled: if students cannot trust their institutions to offer support and safety, who can they trust?”

*Names changed to protect identities

Full statements from universities below: 

Loughborough University

Richard Taylor, Loughborough University’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “The University investigates every report of sexual violence and harassment and provides support to students with experiences. A very high proportion of disciplinary cases are upheld and result in a disciplinary outcome for the perpetrator.

“We encourage a culture where people who have experienced sexual violence and harassment feel able to come forward so we can investigate, take action and provide support. Anyone can make a report through our online tool (they can do so anonymously) or through Student Services via [email protected] or 01509 222765. Our Security staff are also available 24/7, 365 days a year.

“All students arriving at the University are expected to complete online training, which includes information on consent and healthy sexual relationships.”

University of Nottingham 

A University of Nottingham spokesperson said: “Everyone in our community should feel safe at all times from any form of harassment or misconduct. We educate our staff and students on the standards of behaviour we expect and promote safety and awareness initiatives such as Let’s be Clear on Consent to protect our community against sexual misconduct.

“We have recently produced courses on consent, launched during Consent Awareness Week, and misogyny, due to launch in the coming weeks, alongside a video on Public Sexual Harassment written and produced by a group of students with our support. We work closely with our Student Union to deliver active bystander training to students to raise awareness of misogyny, sexual harassment, and violence and to encourage our community to identify how they can safely challenge inappropriate behaviour and support one another to be safe.

“Students who have experienced sexual harassment and violence are encouraged to report it through the University’s Report and Support system, via the website and university app. Students seeking advice about sexual violence are offered a meeting with a Sexual Violence Liaison Officer, one of more than 20 members of staff the University has trained to provide this specialist service, helping students make their report and access support.”

University of Edinburgh

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said:“The University does not tolerate sexual violence within its community, and takes any reports very seriously. We have worked closely with the Students’ Association and Sports Union to develop a strategy aimed at preventing and responding better to sexual violence.

“As part of this strategy, we aim to encourage more students to disclose to the University that they are survivors of sexual violence, reduce incidences of sexual violence through education and culture change, and provide better support to survivors.

“Significant investment has been directed to help us achieve these aims. This includes the appointment of a Sexual Violence and Harassment Liaison team, who provide support for survivors of sexual violence and harassment, as well as overseeing the new ‘Report & Support’ platform. We are also in the process of recruiting two more full-time senior case workers to support survivors of sexual assault and gender-based violence.

“Any student who has experienced sexual harassment, violence or abuse can use the platform to either tell the University (anonymously) about what happened or report it, with their contact details, and seek support. The site also provides further information, advice and guidance for survivors of sexual harassment, violence or abuse.

“We are working with a wide range of groups across Edinburgh to tackle sexual violence. We are part of the ‘Fearless Edinburgh’ partnership, which brings together Edinburgh College, Police Scotland and the NHS. We are also working with frontline support groups such as Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre, and funding more support for survivors through them.

“The University also offers free online ‘Consent Matters’ and ‘Tackling Harassment’ courses to discuss what informed sexual consent looks like, how all parties can respect and agree clear boundaries and ensure there is consent at all times.”

University of Southampton

A University of Southampton spokesperson said: “We take this issue very seriously and urge anyone who has experienced any form of sexual assault or harassment to report it to University support services and the police.

“All students are required to take a mandatory online course about sexual consent in their first month with us and our Student Office will follow up with any student who does not complete the course within this time.

“Our online tool, Report + Support, makes it easier to report incidents and our Expect Respect campaign aims to increase awareness of all issues of harassment, including sexual misconduct.

“The University and Students’ Union offer a wide-range of support services and both are committed to providing a safe campus and halls environment for all.”

Newcastle University: 

A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to the wellbeing and safety of our students and do our utmost to support those who have experienced sexual harassment or violence.

“At Newcastle University, we believe full responsibility lies with the perpetrators of these crimes and have put several measures in place to help keep our students safe.

“All students are provided with information on consent as part of our compulsory induction programme and our Club and Society Welfare Officers are trained to recognise all forms of sexual violence and how to signpost students who have experienced this to appropriate services.

“Students can report incidents of sexual violence, anonymously or with contact details, via our Report and Support tool so that they can be offered specialist support and guidance.

“We offer specialist sexual harassment and violence support through our team of sexual violence liaison officers, have a University SafeZone App, and a Chaplaincy service that all students can access.”

University of Warwick

A University of Warwick spokesperson said: “Our policy on sexual misconduct is clear – it will not be tolerated.Every complaint is investigated and any individuals who are found to have broken our values, either by the police or by our own comprehensive disciplinary processes, will face sanctions – which include expulsion or withdrawal from the university.

“Within 48 hours of contacting Report and Support, a trained Student Liaison Officer will get in touch to provide support, talk through the options available and be a dedicated point of contact.  A Sexual and Domestic Violence Adviser will also be on hand to offer emotional support. 

“Prevention and awareness raising are critical to our approach. We have delivered an extensive training programme to thousands of students, including the mandatory Warwick Values Programme, consent and bystander training to reinforce our values and the behaviour we expect of each other.

“We strongly encourage anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct to contact our Report and Support service (available here: https://reportandsupport.warwick.ac.uk/) so that we can take action and support survivors. They can report anonymously if they prefer.”

To find out more about Our Streets Now Higher Education campaign visit their website here and to sign up to become an Our Streets Now Higher Education Ambassador head here.