Sexual violence is ‘endemic’ at UK universities, says lecturers’ union

One in 10 university staff members have experienced sexual violence over the past five years

The University and College Union (UCU) claims sexual violence is “endemic” at UK universities after a report found that one in 10 university staff members have experienced sexual violence in the workplace at some point over the last five years.

The study, which surveyed over 4,000 people, revealed that 52 per cent of those who’d directly experienced sexual violence did not report it to their employer, while  70 per cent of incidents were not isolated and were instead parts of longer-term patterns of behaviour.

Women were 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence than men, while people from ethnic minority groups, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and those on precarious contracts were all at greater risk.

“The report’s findings demonstrate that senior management in universities and colleges aren’t taking the issue of sexual violence at work seriously,” says UCU.

Some of the people involved in the report chose to give anonymous testimonies of their experiences of sexual violence in the workplace. One said: “It was so shocking; I didn’t expect to be harassed…I felt super vulnerable and wanted to disappear.”

Another detailed how power structures within the sector seem to affect how sexual violence is dealt with, claiming her abuser was “untouchable” due to his “charm and charisma”.

She added: “The main issue in my experience is how problems with sexual violence are typically dealt with according to the status in the institution of the alleged abuser, i.e. if they are a prof with a large grant record, you may as well forget it.”

Professor Lesley McMillan, Chair of the task force group who conducted the report, said: “This groundbreaking report demonstrates the widespread and enduring nature of sexual violence in the workplace and makes clear and concise recommendations for change.

“The sector is waking up to the problem however it is clear that progress is variable, and in some cases, slow or yet to begin.  It is now vital that employers and unions work together to create a university and college sector that is inclusive and safe, prevents these harms from occurring, and offers support and redress when they do.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The brave testimony from survivors should mark a turning point in the fight against sexual violence and ring in the ears of college and university leaders who have allowed sexual violence to become endemic on campus.

“The report’s findings reveal shocking levels of institutional failure and reflect a culture in which protecting the reputation of a university or college comes before delivering justice for survivors.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK told The Guardian: “University senior management take these matters extremely seriously and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study so that no student or member of staff is subject to any form of sexual violence or misconduct

“However while progress has been made, including in encouraging survivors to come forward and report, we know – and this report further emphasises – that there is much more to do to end all forms of harassment in higher education.”

A Department for Education spokesperson told The Tab: “No one should face sexual violence in the place they work. We are determined to stamp out all forms sexual harassment and abuse on campuses for both staff and students and will continue to work with sector leaders to ensure they are taking a zero-tolerance approach. 

“Minister Donelan wrote to the sector in July making clear the government’s expectation that institutions must have robust procedures in place, and setting out our plans to tackle the misuse of Non-Disclosure Agreements – we are currently looking at what more we can do with universities to tackle this and will set out more on this is due course.”

Featured image credit: Shutterstock / Matej Kastelic

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