Sexual harassment an invisible problem at UK universities

The way universities in the UK deal with sexual harassment cases concerning university staff and students has been criticised by campaigners and academics. The Guardian reported that in many cases of students being sexually harassed by university students both parties are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Confidentiality contracts signed in settlements allow the perpetrators to escape their crime, as the agreements prohibit either of the parties to speak of the allegations. The offenders are then free to move to other institutions where they could strike again. Ann Olivarius, a leading lawyer in the area of sexual harassment in UK and US universities believes “young women are terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint, then when they do, the university’s chief concern is to protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.”

The Department of Education has criticised the use of NDAs for keeping these problems a secret. A spokesperson said: “sexual harassment is unacceptable and universities’ responsibilities to their students are crystal clear. They must have clear policies in place for the handling of such complaints and ensure students do not face harassment of any kind.”

In an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace, such universities are accused of disgracefully prioritising their reputation over the safety of their students by academics, lawyers, and campaigners. Dr Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University said her research had taken her into 10-15 universities and she came across the same conclusion, that “the system comes into operation to protect itself.” She stated that universities operate like businesses and issues of sexual harassment “are thought of in terms of the economic cost, of reputation management, and: What happens if we lose our star professor and his grant income?”

Sussex University were criticised heavily this summer when it was revealed they continued to employ an academic for a further ten months after he was charged with domestic violence. In this case, Allison Smith, 24, who had been in a relationship with Dr Lee Salter, a lecturer in her department, said the academic “punched me and knocked me out…he threw a salt container at my face.” Salter has been sentenced to 22 weeks’ imprisonment and suspended for 18 months.

Goldsmiths University has also had sexual harassment cases in the past. Prof Sara Ahmed, former Director of the Centre for Feminist Research at the London university said there had been a “number of complaints” made by female students which resulted in some staff leaving. However, because of the use of confidentiality agreements in settlements the situation was kept under the radar. As a result of this lack of transparency, the 1752 group has been set up by Goldsmiths to advise and deliver training around the issue of staff-to-student sexual harassment and exploitation.

The Department of Education advises students to contact the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they are not satisfied with how their personal complaint has been dealt with, and states that if a student feels they have been the victim of a sexual assault they should immediately report it to the police. However, Olivarius believes there to be “no effective mechanism” at universities to stop academic staff pressuring students for sexual relationships and says “there are very few penalties towards academics who sexually harass their students.” Campaigners on the issue have said they think the problem will continue to exist at British universities unless disciplinary action is made mandatory against the perpetrators of sexual harassment.


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June 2022
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