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UCU report shows sexual violence endemic at UK universities and colleges

22 Dec 2021

The University College Union (UCU) have today (Wednesday 22nd December) released a report titled ‘Eradicating Sexual Violence In Tertiary Education’, which shows the wide-scale problem of sexual violence amongst University and College staff.

Some of the key figures to come out of the report include:

  • One in 10 university and college staff had experienced workplace sexual violence in the past five years
  • 12% of women and 5% of men had directly experienced workplace sexual violence
  • 52% of those who directly experienced sexual violence did not disclose or report it to their employer
  • 70% of those who directly experienced sexual violence experienced it as an ongoing pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off incident
  • Staff on non-permanent contracts were 1.3 times as likely to experience direct sexual violence than those in a permanent role

These figures are indicative of a workplace culture that allows and enables sexual violence. The fact that 70% of the abuse perpetrated is an ongoing pattern of behaviour shows how deeply ingrained the acceptance of abuse is within Universities and colleges, and how badly survivors are being failed. No one should have to experience sexual violence in their place of work, to experience it as a regular occurrence is unacceptable and calls for immediate action.

The report also highlights how the power dynamics in Colleges and Universities are deterring survivors from reporting. We know that sexual violence is all about power and control, and this report clearly shows that men in positions of power are abusing their authority. Survivors are effectively being held to ransom by the use of non-disclosure agreements, the threat of job losses and the fear of inaction or retribution. Perpetrators of sexual violence are therefore being protected, whilst survivors are being continuously let down. Some survivors reported being pressured to resolve complaints informally to protect the reputation of the institution, showing that the concern about reputation holds more importance than the welfare of staff.

 The UCU has set out a number of recommendations for employers to implement to reduce levels of sexual violence and increase support for survivors. Some examples of these include:

  • Employers should treat the prevention and resolution of sexual violence as a health and safety (H&S) matter, to be integrated into their H&S policies, consultations or negotiations with campus unions
  • Abandoning the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with perpetrators, disclosing outcomes of complaints to survivors, and including information about disciplinary proceedings in references provided for perpetrators
  • Recognising that casualisation exacerbates sexual violence and working with UCU to end it through collective agreements and lobbying for wider policy change
  • Employers should provide counselling for employees who complain about sexual violence and those who act as representatives in sexual violence cases in the workplace

We welcome these recommendations, in particular abandoning the use of non-disclosure agreements, which only serve to protect the perpetrators and the institutions, and do nothing to support survivors. We would encourage employers to ensure that any counselling offered is specialist and trauma-informed, such as that offered by Rape Crisis Centres. We would also encourage standardised training across institutions, that training is informed by specialists working within sexual violence, and that all training recognises the extra barriers faced by marginalised communities.

Rape Crisis England & Wales CEO Jayne Butler comments:
"The UCU report shows how badly survivors of sexual violence are being let down within Universities and Colleges. It’s important to note that if this culture exists for staff, it almost certainly exists for students too, who will face even more barriers to reporting.

This is a new report, but the sexual violence experienced by staff is far from new: it is a deep-rooted and long term problem. We hope that institutions will use this report to make the much-needed changes that put survivor rights over institutional reputation. This means rigorous policies put in place that ensure that women are not deterred from reporting and are given access to proper support when they do. We also need to see changes to workplace culture that means the experience of survivors is improved and that they are confident that institutions will act on their disclosures. There is no quick fix here and we note that this report has been released when many key university staff will already have left for the Christmas break.

We’d like to acknowledge the bravery of the survivors who came forward to share their stories and inform the report’s findings. Specialist, confidential support is available for those dealing with the impacts of sexual violence via our website, no-one needs to be dealing with the impacts of these traumatic experiences on their own."