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Case study: Tackling sexual violence in universities

  • 10 May 2021
  • By Sophia Hartley

This blog was kindly contributed by Sophia Hartley, Welfare Officer at Leeds University Union. Sophia has been at the forefront of the drive at Leeds University to tackle sexual violence on campus.  You can find Sophia on Twitter @sophiahartley.

The murder of Sarah Everard has awakened the nation to issues of gender-based violence, but why was the nation sleeping in the first place? There is certainly no room for ignorance in the higher education sector. In 2016, the Universities UK (UUK) Taskforce documented the nature and scale of sexual violence in higher education institutions in their report Changing the Culture. The report also detailed the devastating impact sexual violence has on students’ wellbeing, physical health and academic progress. 

Yet, four years later, research from the 2020 Empowered Campus Report, conducted by 43 Students’ Unions and covering over 100 universities’ students, has informed the following statistics. One in three female students in the UK experience sexual assault. Meanwhile, 71 per cent of male students who are assaulted deal with it entirely alone. Furthermore, an astonishing 97 per cent of students sexually assaulted do not report assault to their university. It is apparent that four years on from the UUK Taskforce, higher education institutions have not made big enough steps in actively changing the culture around sexual violence. This suggests it is no longer enough for universities to state they have a ‘Zero-tolerance Policy towards Sexual Violence’ on our campuses.Policy statements can only be trusted if they are evidenced by commitments from universities to be dedicated to this work. 

Student unions have been instrumental when it comes to the teaching of consent and healthy relationships. However, when I embarked on my role as Welfare Officer at Leeds University Union, short-lived consent campaigns, in a university with multi-million-pound turnover no longer felt like an acceptable solution to changing the culture on our campus. 

Alternatively, the lesson I have learnt from my year as a student officer is that to change the culture around sexual violence student unions and universities need to work together. Student activism ought not to be feared by universities but welcomed. There is something brilliant about student officers not initially understanding how the university’s bureaucracy works. It brings the ‘why not?’ type of attitude which can sometimes be difficult to have when you are immersed in the governance of university structures. However, student leaders and students’ unions can only do so much to drive a genuine and sustainable culture change. The drive for this work needs to sit within the university and involve the consultation of different student groups. Culture change must come from institutions who have the power, influence and resources. Both parties have a role to play, which the whole university community can come to benefit from. 

For example, at Leeds we have established a strong and respectful relationship between the University of Leeds and Leeds University Union. This allows us to challenge and hold each other accountable. As soon as I started my role as Welfare Officer and I began to sit virtually at the high decision-making tables, I knew my opinion was valued. This culture set the precedent for Chris Warrington, the Head of Student Support at the University, and I to propose ‘A Reformed Institution-wide Approach to Tackling Sexual Violence’ in partnership. 

The ‘Reformed Institution-wide Approach to Tackling Sexual Violence’ we proposed was influenced by the ground-breaking approach to addressing sexual violence at Durham University. This work had been led by Clarissa Humphrey, the first Sexual Misconduct Response Manager in the UK and Graham Towl, a Professor of Forensic Science. Their book, Addressing Student Sexual Violence in Higher Education, is a step-by-step guide to good practice in addressing sexual violence. It moves away from the offering of general principles and instead offers how-to actions to tackle the issue.

What would my advice be to student leaders and higher education institutions who want to effect change on the issue?  Start by reading this book. 

At the University of Leeds we met Clarissa Humphreys on Microsoft Teams to evaluate what Durham had done well, the staffing structures they have in place and their reflections on implementing such a ground-breaking approach. Durham University’s sharing of best practice shaped our ‘Reformed-institutional-wide Approach’ to cover victim-survivor centred policy and procedures, open door reporting, staff training, student education, support for victim-survivors/reported parties and improved communications. 

However, the enabling factor that underpins the whole approach is the funding for an expert staff team to undertake different branches of the approach. Therefore, our proposal asked for the recruitment of senior staff, with strategic vision, to encourage a change of behaviours and cultures in our students, faculties and central services. 

A crucial branch of the approach and what I believe to be the core of culture change is preventive measures. These can be categorised as consent classes and/or healthy relationship workshops and active-bystander intervention. However, as a student leader dedicated to this work, you have to prove to your institution the risk of not providing preventative measures.

This is where I found sector data imperative in demonstrating the gaps in students’ understanding of consent. For example, the Higher Education Policy Institute report Sex and Relationships Among Students: Summary Report showed that just one-in-six students (17%) ‘strongly agree’ and further one-third (32%) ‘slightly agree’ that the education they received at school provided them with ‘a comprehensive understanding of sexual consent’, while another third disagree. The report also shows that the proportion of students who are ‘very confident’ about their understanding of sexual consent after the consumption of alcohol is just 30%. 

Our proposal to the University Executive Group (UEG) was accompanied by a report which cited sector data like the example above. Thus, when we presented the proposal to UEG this data gave gravitas to our argument that students are not finished products when they start university. In many cases, their secondary education does not provide them with the confidence to engage in sex and relationships safely. Rather, this education leaves damaging blurred lines when it comes to consent. Providers of higher education have a duty of care to not only respond meaningfully to incidences of sexual violence, but also to support students in being able to build healthy and respectful relationships. 

Once this argument has been welcomed by senior members of the university, it is imperative that consent classes are designed with care. If the institution is dedicated to a victim-survivor approach, the aim should be to empower students to consider new ways of thinking about these issues rather than just listing dos and don’ts. When creating these programmes institutions need to ensure student consultation is at the heart of their development and that they are trauma-informed from the start. 

Our journey to culture change around sexual violence at the University of Leeds is ongoing but it has been accelerated by valued partnership work between staff and students. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with the Head of Student Support on making our ‘Reformed Approach to Tackling Sexual Violence’ a reality for the University of Leeds community. My final words to the sector would be this: take student activism seriously and support student leaders to deliver change that will benefit your institution. You will not regret it. 

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