Senior politicians, student leaders and equality campaigners have called for an urgent review of how universities handle allegations of sexual harassment by staff after a Guardian investigation revealed it was at “epidemic” levels in the UK.
Within hours of publication, the research – the first in the UK to provide an insight into the scale of sexual harassment of students by university staff – prompted a further 60 responses from Guardian readers sharing stories of harassment on campus.
The National Union of Students (NUS) said it would launch its own national survey into sexual misconduct by university staff towards students.
NUS women’s officer Hareen Ghani said: “Universities are currently ill-equipped to deal with instances of student-staff harassment and lack basic guidelines on the issue itself. On occasions when students do report incidents of abuse, they are often left vulnerable by university procedures.”
Working with the 1752 group, an expert consultancy set up to tackle staff-student misconduct in universities, the NUS said it would seek the views of thousands of staff and students, as well as look at how institutions treated complaints.
On Monday, the Guardian published the results of a series of freedom of information (FoI) requests sent to 120 universities which showed that students had made at least 169 allegations of sexual misconduct against academic and non-academic staff from 2011-12 to 2016-17. At least another 127 allegations about staff were made by colleagues.
But the investigation revealed that the true scale of the problem is likely to be far greater, as many alleged victims claimed they were dissuaded from making official complaints and either withdrew their allegations or settled for an informal resolution.
Goldsmiths, University of London, which was at the centre of a high-profile sexual harassment scandal last year, is facing fresh allegations of sexual misconduct by staff. One woman, in a vulnerable state following a family tragedy, claimed she was “groomed” by a member of staff when she was an undergraduate.
“What I needed was care and support but what I got was an unethical misuse of power and a very unhappy route straight into his bed,” he said.
Politicians from all sides expressed alarm at the findings. Conservative MP Maria Miller, who chairs the Commons’ women and equalities committee, said: “Anybody who is involved in teaching young people, whether it’s in schools or universities, have a duty to make sure they are learning in a safe environment. The level of allegations of this type of behaviour is concerning and it should be reviewed urgently.”
Sarah Champion, the shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, said: “When people have the courage to come forward, they should be taken seriously and then the evidence should be sought to substantiate their position. Currently we are too quick to dismiss victims, something that would not happen in any other crime.”
Responding to the Guardian’s findings, the universities minister, Jo Johnson, said: “We take any form of violence and sexual harassment extremely seriously and expect universities to take a zero-tolerance approach.
“That is why we asked Universities UK (UUK) to set up a sexual violence and harassment taskforce on how institutions are preventing and responding to incidents. We must now ensure that the work this taskforce has done goes onto make a real difference to students across the country.”
Johnson has asked UUK, the umbrella organisation representing the higher education sector, to check progress after six months to make sure universities are doing all they can to protect the safety and security of their students.
The UUK report, however, focused on misconduct between students. A spokesperson said: “The taskforce also identified areas where more work needs to be done, including staff-to-student harassment. Universities UK is working with a range of bodies to take forward these recommendations.”
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union representing university staff, said that what emerged was a lack of consistent policies in universities for dealing with sexual harassment. “Universities need to actively promote policies they have on sexual harassment so staff and students know what they can do,” she said.
Adam Tickell, the vice chancellor of the University of Sussex, which was criticised for failing in its duty of care to a student who was assaulted by a lecturer with whom she was in a relationship, said: “Students deserve to be safe from harm and all higher education institutions have a crucial role to play in addressing sexual violence and harassment.
“The leadership in the higher education sector has had an awakening and it is critical that we continue to raise awareness and understanding of this.”
Ghani said: “Unfortunately, the scale of the problem in the UK is not well documented. A recent study in the US, however, found that one in six women postgraduate students and one in 20 women undergraduate students had experienced sexual harassment from a lecturer or a university adviser. If figures in the UK are anywhere near as close to the US, we have a national crisis on our hands.”
Dr Anna Bull, of the 1752 group, who is a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, said problems around sexual misconduct by staff had been silenced for too long. “One of the central functions of universities is to carry out research – and yet they have failed to look into what is going on in their own back yard. The Guardian’s coverage over the last six months has revealed that universities are failing in their duty of care to students, and protecting staff over students.”