Cambridge University in spotlight as rape and sexual assault reports by students rise tenfold

Hayley Dixon
Cambridge University had one of the highest number of reports  - PA

Rape and sexual assault reports from university students have risen tenfold with Cambridge University seeing some of the highest number of complaints in the country, an investigation has revealed. 

The “black-out drinking” culture is partly to blame, victims have warned as they reveal that they have been let down by a lack of systems in place to investigate and suspend alleged attackers. 

The number of allegations made to universities per year rose from 65 in 2014 to 626 in 2018, Freedom of Information requests by Channel 4 News show.

It is feared that this could be the “tip of the iceberg” as campaigners warn that universities are not equipped to with the flood of complaints and risk leaving a “generation betrayed”. 

Among those who says they have been let down by the system is a Cambridge student who says that her college tipped off her alleged attacker when she grew frustrated at their response and called the police.

The Crown Prosecution service and the police actively encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, despite the fact that prosecution rates are falling. 

Allegations involving alcohol, which is often the case in reports of attacks on campus, are notoriously difficult to prove and are among the more difficult cases being dropped by prosecutors, charities have warned. 

The figures show that the University of East Anglia had the highest number of reports – at 281 since 2014 – whilst Cambridge, which only  provided figures for the last three years, received 165 and the University of Birmingham recorded 87. 

Each university stressed that the number of reports included historic allegations, many of which may have occurred off campus and did not reflect the number of incidents at the universities themselves. 

The universities with the highest number of reports said that this was a “positive indicator” and reflected the fact they had improved awareness, reporting techniques and support for students. 

Katie Russell, a spokeswoman for Rape Crisis, said that the figures mirror increases in reports to police and the charity’s crisis centres, though the number of victims who come forward remains low at around 17 per cent.

She said that many universities are taking positive steps in dealing with sexual misconduct but they need to “take responsibility and adopt zero tolerance approach to any kind of sexist or abusive behaviour”.

Dr Emma Chapman, member of the 1752 Group which campaigns against sexual misconduct in higher education, added that encouraging reports is not enough and universities are not putting the required resources into supporting alleged victims after they have made a complaint.

“I have seen nothing which has increased my faith in universities to deal with the people coming forward,” Dr Chapman said.

“I am really pleased that more people feel able to report but I hope that trust is not misplaced or we could leave a whole generation feeling betrayed - and what would that mean for the next generation watching?”

A Birmingham University student who alleges she was drugged and raped on a night out is among those who believe that free alcohol and the culture of getting “black-out drunk” in fresher’s week is contributing to the issues.

A woman who made rape allegations to Cambridge said that she was “shocked” when she was referred to numbers in the fresher’s book.

When she did call the police the college warned the accused, she claims. He was detained but the case was dropped before trial.

Cambridge, which has previously admitted that it has a “significant problem” with sexual misconduct, said that cases such as this were “exactly” why they had pushed for change.  

Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Graham Virgo said that they have made a number of big changes since the woman made her allegations, including an anonymous reporting tool and a campaign to raise awareness.

He said: “I know from listening to students that no matter how well an investigation is handled it can be an extremely difficult experience. We are doing everything we can to make sure students feel supported.

“Sexual harassment is an issue for all universities, and for society – 1 in 4 UK women between the ages of 16 and 24 are subjected to some form of sexual violence.  It is one of the most underreported crimes as a result of stigma and victim blaming attached to it. We have to continue to address this and we will.”

A spokesman said that when they launched an anonymous reporting tool in 2017 they knew that they would attract negative headlines as the University with one of the highest number of complaints, but it was “worth it” to encourage students to come forward.

Some of the universities included sexual harassment in the figures provided for Channel 4 News' Rape On Campus which will be broadcast on Thursday. 

The University of Birmingham was among those to stress that some of the reports were historic and could come from any point in a student’s life.

Not all complaints were formal and many were recorded anonymously. Birmingham, for example, said that they had only received 14 formal reports in the last five years whilst Cambridge said that of their reports only 12 were formal.

 A spokesman for  Universities UK said: “Universities are working hard to ensure that no student or member of staff is subjected to sexual assault or any form of harassment. This is a pressing issue across society, including within the UK’s university student population of over 2 million, and we have called on university leaders to provide active senior leadership in this area.

“Our progress report found that although there is more work to be done, universities are making progress in tackling student sexual misconduct and there has been an increase in disclosures, which is considered a positive indication of cultural change where people feel comfortable reporting.”

A spokesman for the University of Birmingham said: “We commend the incredible courage of all victims of sexual assault or rape and recognise the strength it takes to speak out about their experiences.

“The safety and wellbeing of our students is of paramount importance and we have invested significantly in taking a proactive, wrap-around approach to supporting students in reporting any incidents whenever and wherever they may have occurred – including during childhood, prior to attending university, while on vacation or overseas, or away from university. “

A spokesman for UAE said: “ Over the past five years, UEA and the UEA Students’ Union have worked together on a Never OK campaign to encourage students to report sexual harassment or improper sexual conduct and to build a culture of zero tolerance towards issues of harassment.”

"The fact that students increasingly report incidents of sexual harassment is a positive indication that the work the University and the UEA Students' Union have done together over recent years to tackle issues of sexual misconduct is working."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Sexual violence and harassment is disgusting. It can have a devastating impact on victims and is completely unacceptable – they should always be reported so action can be taken.

“That’s why we asked Universities UK to establish a specific taskforce to tackle Sexual violence and harassment and tasked the Office for Students (OfS) to work with institutions to implement its recommendations.

“Additionally, the OfS and its predecessor body have invested £4.7m to support projects focussed on tackling sexual and gender-based violence, online harassment and hate crime in higher education.”

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