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Our report into staff-student sexual misconduct

By NUS News

Wednesday 4 April 2018 Campaigns News

In the last year, NUS Women’s Officer, Hareem Ghani, has led research into understanding staff-student sexual misconduct in higher education. Here she discusses the report’s findings.  

Over the past year, I’ve been working with The 1752 Group to produce research on staff-student sexual misconduct in UK higher education. Today, I am thrilled to announce the publication of our ground-breaking report, Power in the academy: staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education.

For a long time, it’s been apparent to many of us who live and work in universities that sexual misconduct is a reality within academia. However, a lack of research in this area, combined with wide-scale institutional failings, meant that we had very little idea of students’ patterns of experience.

This report is the first step towards understanding this issue. What we have found* is sobering and demonstrates the urgent need for action. It shows that higher education is an environment where casual misconduct, harassment, and sexism are rife, and where sexualised and sexist behaviours are culturally embedded. We need to understand this contextually, as part of both wider culture and the particular nature of higher education. Staff-student sexual misconduct needs to be located as part of a continuum of sexual violence in universities and in society more widely. However, the unique dynamics of the relationship between staff and students in higher education means that there are aspects of sexual misconduct that are specific to this setting.

This report sheds light on these behaviours – and on the power relations between staff and students more broadly.

Key findings
More than four in ten respondents had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from staff, and that one in eight had been made to feel uncomfortable by a staff member touching them. We found that 65 of our survey respondents had suffered non-consensual sexual contact from a staff member, and 15 had been sexually assaulted or raped.

Our findings show that these experiences are clearly gendered. Women were much more likely than men to both have experienced misconduct, and to have suffered greater consequences because of it. Not only this, but our data suggests that LGBT+ participants, and LGBT+ women, in particular, were even more likely to have experienced misconduct. Our findings also show postgraduate respondents, and postgraduate women, in particular, experiencing this in higher proportions.

We also found that universities are failing in their response to staff sexual misconduct. Of those respondents who reported misconduct to their institution, the vast majority had a negative experience, with 90 per cent reporting being let down in some way by the response to their case. This indicates that the hurt and harm caused by sexual misconduct is not limited to particular incidents but is in many instances exacerbated by the wilful failings of inadequate, incompetent and ill-equipped institutions. 

Sexual misconduct has serious impacts on students’ mental health, learning, and future career prospects. For example, of those respondents who experienced sexual misconduct, a fifth of women reported losing confidence in themselves; just under a fifth experienced mental health problems, 16 per cent reported avoiding going to certain parts of campus, and 13 per cent felt unable to fulfil work roles at their institution. These impacts were also unmistakably gendered; women were far more likely than men to report negative consequences.

The significance of these findings cannot be underestimated, and we hope that this research will prompt swift action from higher education institutions. There is still a long way for us to go, but I am proud that the Women’s Campaign and The 1752 Group are taking a lead on this pertinent issue. For too long, these problems have been at best side-lined and at worst silenced by institutions.

We need to talk about the open secrets that plague academia, to challenge cultures of entitlement and stop abuses of power wherever they happen. I hope that this reportwill contribute to the invaluable work of tackling gendered violence in our universities.

Hareem Ghani
NUS UK Women’s Officer 2016-18

*1839 current and former students responded to our survey. View the full report here.