Sexual violence, NDAs and relationship abuse

Wednesday 24-02-2021 - 11:53

This is a policy passed by NUS National Conference 2021

Content warning: Sexual violence and relationship abuse

Main Proposal

There is a sexual violence crisis prevalent amongst UK universities, colleges and student accommodation which is not being addressed. This policy includes all those that recognise as students under the NUS, be that at the university, college or apprentices.

We would like to share some statistics that need your immediate attention.

•    Almost two thirds (62%) of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence at UK universities. 70% of female students and recent graduates have experienced sexual assault, as well as 26% of male students, 61% of non-binary students, and 73% of disabled students.
•    75% of respondents to a survey on sexual violence in Further Education reported having had unwanted sexual experiences at least once.
•    Only 1 in 10 reported their experiences to the university or police; only 6% of respondents reported their experience of sexual violence to the university. 
•    Only 2% of those experiencing sexual violence felt both able to report it to their university and were satisfied with the reporting process.
•    1 in 7 students have experienced domestic abuse.

These national figures reflect a reality for many. Anecdotally, sexual violence and relationship abuse has become more prevalent in student accommodation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to government guidance, some students are confined to their halls of residence, which may leave them vulnerable and susceptible to perpetrators. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any publicly available and current statistics on this matter, specifically regarding the prevalence of sexual violence and relationship abuse during the lockdown. This makes it even more difficult to understand the real experience of students and the gravity of the situation nationally. 

The Last Taboo and The Red Flag Campaign are two gender inclusive campaigns founded by students at the University of York. 

The Last Taboo is a campaign that focuses on addressing the issue of sexual assault and harassment at UK universities and colleges. It does so by working closely with the university’s students’ union and university staff in order to develop a line of communication between students and the university on this topic. It specialises in consulting students and staff at specific universities and colleges to help understand the way that their university handles the issues of sexual assault and harassment. It then seeks to improve upon its current policy, reporting processes and educational aspects based on it’s in depth student feedback. It aims to create a bespoke report for every university that it runs at, in order to improve the student experience, making university and campus life safer. The campaign also provides educational resources on it’s social media and works directly with students to increase awareness of sexual assault and harassment. 

The Red Flag Campaign was founded to address relationship abuse amongst university students. It is primarily an information based campaign, intended to raise awareness of the key signs of toxic, abusive and controlling relationships and signpost those in need to the support suited for them. It supports people of all sexualities and gender identities struggling with any form of relationship abuse, whether that be romantic, platonic or even familial. The campaign shares information via social media posts to bring about awareness and provides a safe space online for survivors to share stories. They are working to help people to recognise abusive characteristics, to provide easy access to support for students struggling with abuse, and to make survivors of domestic abuse feel less isolated. It is an incredibly important topic which is overlooked in student environments, and with little work focused on domestic abuse for students, the campaign has an important and unique content which could help many people.

It is crucial to us as a movement because it goes further than ‘students deserve better’. No person should experience the trauma of sexual harassment. Student accommodation providers and universities and colleges need to be held accountable for their management of these cases. More needs to be done to ensure these students are adequately safeguarded.  

The issues that The Last Taboo and The Red Flag Campaign cover are increasingly prevalent within universities and colleges across the UK, as well as places of further education. Since this has been the most difficult academic year for students in recent history, student wellbeing is evidently suffering more than it ever has before. The prevalence of various forms of sexual harassment compounds this issue; students are more likely to drop out and their academic achievements suffer a lot as a result of psychological distress. 

Inconsistencies in support and reporting processes at various institutions are causing students to experience different degrees of treatment, producing imbalances in equity. There needs to be a minimum standard when handling these cases. These inconsistencies and barriers must be widely known 

Further, universities and colleges still use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in response to sexual violence. Universities UK say that using NDAs to keep victims quiet should not be tolerated  - and yet, it continues to be tolerated. In 2019, BBC found that UK Universities have spent around £87 million in pay-offs with NDAs since 2017.  Nearly a third of Universities have used NDAs in student grievance disputes since 2016. NDAs are often unenforceable by universities, and so we must understand that their purpose is to intimidate survivors into silence, and to conceal and protect perpetrators of abuse, assault, and rape. By using NDAs, our institutions are enabling the actions of perpetrators, and allowing cycles of abuse to continue. 

As a movement, we aim to provide students a space to build communities to socialise and learn, and work to protect and defend the rights of students. A fundamental part of these aims is ensuring that our students are safe to study at our institutions. We have a responsibility to ensure our students are not being silenced, and our universities aren’t working to actively protect perpetrators of sexual violence or harassment.  Stopping gagging orders from being used to manipulate the students we represent is not only important, but we believe it is also necessary, and a mandatory action towards ending gender based and sexual violence on our campuses; it will force our institutions to be more transparent about their actions with regards to sexual misconduct within student grievance cases, and to stop enabling abusers. In addition, if we were able to make legislative change around their use within our sector, we would also be setting a precedent for other sectors where this is a problem.

The earlier that we can provide information on these topics, the more effective the campaigns will be. Particularly during COVID-19, these issues have been happening behind closed doors more than ever.

 What would the world look like if we solved it?

•    Students would feel comfortable with no fear of sexual violence and relationship abuse, promoting a more positive environment for engaging with education.  
•    There would be more transparency and current research on the issues so they can be better understood nationally. This would enable steps to be taken to mitigate the extent of sexual violence and relationship abuse that students are experiencing.  
•    There would be coordinated approaches and policies between accommodation providers, universities and local authorities in dealing with issues of sexual violence and relationship abuse. Students will be clear on the process and how to report the issues in a comfortable and confidential manner, which does not make the student reporting feel like at fault.
•    Adequate support services and reporting facilities would be put in place for those who have experienced sexual violence and relationship abuse to enable students to process what has happened and feel safe.  
•    NDAs would not be used in cases of sexual misconduct in universities and colleges
•    Universities and colleges would be transparent in their use of NDAs when reporting to relevant funding and policy-making bodies

That when work on addressing NDA's is to take place this policy will take a holistic approach to the issues of NDAs. Exploring all of their uses between students and universities within student life. It will also work to spread awareness of NDAs, different types of NDAs and how they are used so that students become more aware of them. This will be done by working with pre-existing groups who are addressing the issue of NDAs as well as professionals who understand the legal aspects to them.

Accepting this policy will increase the awareness and understanding for the issues of sexual violence and relationship abuse within student life, and will help drive institutions to update themselves to provide sufficient support for students experiencing these issues. 

Ideas for Implementation

•    For the NUS to facilitate lines of communication with students’ unions and key decision makers in order to encourage both of the campaign's national expansions. Encouraging active engagement with both of the campaigns from elected students’ union sabbatical officers across the UK. 
•    For the NUS to actively engage with the promotion of the campaigns and the role that they play in providing educational social media content and the productive relationships they are building with universities and colleges. 
•    For the NUS to carry out national research to further understand the issues of sexual violence and relationship abuse amongst university students.
•    For the NUS to use the findings of their research to seek productive change within universities and colleges to address the issues of sexual violence and relationship abuse.
•    For the NUS to lobby the government and relevant funding bodies to ensure that Universities prohibit the use of NDAs in cases of sexual misconduct.   

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