Out of 164 UK universities, UEA was one of 39 which refused to divulge any information relating to their sexual harassment complaints.
Journalists from Al Jazeera Media Network sent identical Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 164 universities and higher education institutes in the UK, asking for information relating to reports of sexual misconduct, reports of sexual misconduct resulting in internal hearings, and the outcomes of those hearings.
When asked why UEA was part of less than a quarter of UK universities who refused to release any details, a university spokesperson said: “The information requested was judged to be seeking individual data and as such would not come under the FOI legislation – it’s not possible to comment on why other universities took a different view… Other universities might record the information in ways that make it easier to provide without disclosing personal data, but that is speculation”.
The FOI sent to UEA was originally made on 1st April 2020 and can be found in the UEA FOI Disclosure Log under reference number FOI_20-088.
In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, a UEA Data Protection Specialist confirmed in a letter of response to Al Jazeera that “the University does not hold information on minutes of internal hearings relevant to complaints made against a student”. Instead, they detailed that “notes may be made at an internal hearing which are then used to write a formal response letter, and the letter then becomes the record of the hearing”.
The Data Protection Specialist then went on to note a number of exemptions which had been applied to parts of Al Jazeera’s request. Firstly, they believed that the disclosure of some of the requested information would breach the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This information includes “the dates of internal hearings, the outcomes or sanctions applied relating to the originating complaints, and any minutes of internal hearings”.
Within the letter of response, they also stated the total number of internal hearings is “very low”. Bearing this in mind, they believe “the combination of data requested would be so specific that it could lead to identification of the incidents and the individuals involved”.
According to the Data Protection Specialist, for incidents where the alleged perpetrator is a member of staff, the minutes for internal hearings would be part of the individual’s personnel record and could only be considered “intensely personal”.
They also acknowledge that Al Jazeera would accept minutes with sensitive information redacted. However, they claim that releasing any of the information requested would include “personally identifiable information and would therefore be contrary to the GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018”.
Finally, they said: “we have not identified a lawful basis that would allow or require us to disclose this information”.
SU Welfare, Community, and Diversity Officer Aaron Campbell stated: “I am personally very upset and disappointed at UEA’s decision to not send any data following an FOI request on sexual harassment complaints. Especially considering that the university was one of the few not to do so… From my understanding, UEA take sexual harassment complaints very seriously. However, I am looking to ensure they are doing the best they possibly can”.