CW: Sexual violence and victimisation
It seems as though not a day goes by without our timelines and news headlines being flooded with yet another story relating to sexual assault on university campuses across the UK. Yet questions still rightfully remain, with reports continuing to rise, about how seriously the Higher Education sector is actually taking this issue.
New figures by Revolt Sexual Assault, a sexual violence awareness campaign, highlight the extent that this issue runs rife across our campuses. Their survey found that almost two-thirds of students experience sexual assault and harassment, but only 6% of students report these incidents to their universities. This raises concerns over the depth of the problem’s reality, hidden behind institutional figures.
Campuses around the UK are plastered with posters of campaigns, encouraging students to report their experiences; but when the catchy slogans run out, are those they are designed to protect actually feeling the benefits? Just 2% of students that submitted a report were happy with the process, a report by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room revealed, with many claiming they received “little support”. It was also uncovered by the BBC that nearly a third of universities have used non-disclosure agreements for student complaints since 2016, with some safe-guarding measures conditional on the victim not publicly sharing their experiences. This overwhelming lack of transparency ensures that issues faced by victims during reporting and disciplinary processes are routinely unheard and unaddressed.
The University of Bath cannot be absolved from this, with its handling of student reports already called into question, almost a year ago, by two referrals to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). The OIA can independently review complaints if a student remains dissatisfied after internal processes have been completed at a university. University Senate meeting minutes, dated 5th June 2019, reveal that one Pro-Vice-Chancellor outlined ongoing work which was ‘revising the procedures, especially needed to deal with any allegations of sexual harassment’.
Following our June 2019 investigation and OIA requirements, the University and Students’ Union promised an overhaul of their complaints and disciplinary systems. Yet seven months on from these changes, dissatisfaction with how sexual violence reports are handled, still circulate online by students. After submitting a report, students are seemingly let down by both organisations throughout the processes and systems that are designed to support those at their most vulnerable.
No sexual violence policy
The most striking aspect of university policy is that it’s actually nowhere to be found in a single, stand-alone document. Instead, students who experience sexual violence are expected to report these incidents under the same documents which tackle noise complaints and plagiarism. This is not a common issue. The majority of other Higher Education institutions provide specific policies that are explicitly designed to deal with sexual violence. Without its own policy, Bath lags painfully behind leading universities including Durham, Warwick and Cambridge. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request failed to return one stand-alone policy, instead we were directed to four different documents which cover the entire spectrum of disciplinary issues.
Hannah Price, the founder of Revolt Sexual Assault, raised her concerns of policies which aren’t specific to sexual violence: ‘Universities are currently relying on statements of a ‘zero tolerance approach’ but have none of the appropriate frameworks in place to substantiate or enforce this; shockingly, in some cases the same procedures used for plagiarism are being applied to students reporting rape. It is not good enough to shoehorn response to sexual violence into pre-existing policy framework like this; it is why it is so important for specific policies for sexual violence on campus to be developed and applied in a consistent nation-wide approach.’
“Shockingly, in some cases the same procedures are being used for plagiarism are being applied to students reporting rape”
Given the prominence of the #NeverOK campaign, it seems unusual that guidance for events following reports of sexual misconduct remain buried deep within the University’s website. Although progress has been made, little has changed for victims reporting sexual misconduct. Other universities have provided all relevant support and procedural documents in one online location. However, students at Bath are forced to navigate through various documents which include a wealth of other irrelevant offences. This can become unnecessarily chaotic and all the more traumatising.
The University has made progress by developing a new sanctioning guidance which recognises the varying severity of disciplinary issues. However, this guidance is also used for offences ranging from plagiarism all the way up to assault. The guidance states that mitigating circumstances will be taken into account before a disciplinary decision can be made. If a perpetrator admits the offence at the earliest opportunity, reductions in a penalty charge can be applied, as well as if they express sincere remorse or even if their actions are considered to be a mistake. This seems to fall short of the University’s “zero-tolerance” approach. The sanctioning guidance provides an opportunity to perpetrators to make excuses, minimising their penalty and can even apportion blame to victims.
The old disciplinary procedures contained no specified time frames, which meant some investigations took as long as 4 months to reach an outcome. The new Student Discipline Flowchart states that it can take up to 60 working days to complete the process. Although the new disciplinary policy promises a ‘prompt and effective response’, is 60 working days actually prompt enough for victims?
A fair and robust investigation does require sufficient time, but a process spanning over several months can be unnecessarily distressing. This is only intensified for victims who remain in close proximity to their perpetrators. Student Services and Security can put separation measures in place during an investigation, but the lack of monitoring of these measures has been criticised.
One student has shared their experience, “trying to balance my studies as well as being part of a long process was exhausting. I still had to see **** when I was on campus and I was terrified of facing more harassment after making a complaint about them. The uni didn’t really do anything to give me space from them”. Another student also reported in our survey that, “some victims are too scared to face their perpetrator and will not turn up to lectures, myself included, this has caused me to go from a first class degree candidate to be likely to fail my degree or at best a 2:2”.
No right of appeal
Another glaring gap in policy appears to be the lack of balance between the rights of a victim and a perpetrator. The University doesn’t afford victims the right to appeal a disciplinary decision yet it does allow perpetrators an appeal opportunity, which can overturn sanctions. If a victim is dissatisfied with the University’s handling of their case, they have to enter a new Student Complaints Process which can take up to 90 calendar days, but ultimately cannot change the outcome of a disciplinary.
Students have shared their feelings over their lack of involvement in the appeals process, “I found out that the SU ban was appealed, I wasn’t allowed to attend. I found out by email that **** was allowed back. I’m gutted.”
“40 days after the appeal, I found out that disciplinary action had been revoked and the student was allowed to return to campus. I felt powerless to change it and wondered if there was any point reporting.”
With 88% of our survey respondents entirely unaware of any of the sanctions given for sexual assault, it remains unclear which, if any, of the University’s penalties are a significant deterrent to prevent sexual violence. An FOI request revealed that from 2008 to date, 62 cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape have been reported to the University. If allegations were proven, the penalties have included two expulsions, two-week suspensions, an acknowledgement of impact and monetary fines. These have ranged from £75 to £360, with an average penalty of £124.
Under the current policy, it is impossible to trace where this money goes but has since been revealed to us that this is put towards a student experience fund. Victims do not see this directly and there’s no suggestion that fines are explictly used to improve sexual violence support. Fines are commonly used for various disciplinary issues and the University has received over £30,000 in fines in just four years, varying from drug offenses to property damage. For those who have gone through the lengthy process of reporting sexual violence, it must be demoralising to find that perpetrators are treated in the same way as parking violations. By placing monetary value on an intrusive violation, the disciplinary process is commodifying and profiting from violence.
Fines are an unusual deterrent, with almost 87% of survey respondents not even aware that they could be issued as a punishment for sexual violence. If it remains unheard of, how can this truly be seen as a significant deterrent, and if not that, then what are their actual purpose? For many students asked, the overwhelming majority believed this to be an inappropriate form of deterrence and punishment. Many expressed that it only further objectifies victims, failing to be adequately representative of the trauma that the victim has experienced. It seemingly wipes away the issue with a cheque and was seen by students as barely a hindrance at a notoriously ‘middle class’ university. One student stated that “it sets a dangerous precedent that wealthier students can ‘buy’ their way out of sexual assault charges”. With the #NeverOk campaign pushed across campus, an individual rightfully questioned whether it is actually #neverokunlessyoupay?
The sanctions given by the SU to perpetrators of sexual violence have also been criticised. According to its own policy, the SU issues bans from its venues, committees, activities, events and website for perpetrators of sexual misconduct. However, multiple flaws have been uncovered within this process. The policy doesn’t include permanent bans for sexual violence, with the most serious cases being capped at 24 weeks. The impact of these bans has also been limited as perpetrators have reportedly served their bans during the summer holidays. This seems to be pointless considering that the majority of SU activities, events and venues aren’t running during these periods, offering victims little reprieve.
One student expressed, “at worst, allowing **** to serve their ban during the holidays was a fake sanction. At best, it was an extremely lenient sanction for unacceptable behaviour.”
In October 2019, the SU updated their policy to include the disclaimer, ‘any holidays (such as the summer holidays) may be excluded from the ban at the discretion of the person issuing the ban’. But, the language appears open to interpretation and does little to assure victims that perpetrators will serve a full and fair ban in conjunction with the undergraduate academic calendar.
Bath Time has also uncovered that the SU has not monitored its own bans. According to their guidelines, bans include ‘blocking website permissions and services’. Yet, there have reportedly been cases of perpetrators purchasing memberships to participate in sports teams and societies while serving an SU ban for sexual misconduct. This could leave victims in a vulnerable position where they have unexpectedly seen their perpetrator in a venue or club during a ban period. The monitoring of these website permissions wasn’t correctly implemented until November 2019.
Under the new policy, sexual violence reports are handled by the University who will undertake disciplinary proceedings. However, the SU has no power to overturn any decisions made by this disciplinary panel. This could result in a student found guilty of sexual violence still being an active member of the SU.
Arguably, the most fundamental resource required when making a report of sexual violence is support. Bath Time has previously criticised the University for only providing support guidance to alleged perpetrators. The University has now produced new guidance documents for all parties which detail the available support through contacting the Deputy Director of Student Services who will direct them to arrange their own appointments with support services. Whilst an FOI request found that staff in Student Services, HR and Security are trained in handling such disclosures, the requirement of victims to make multiple disclosures is significantly re-traumatising.
Expecting victims to seek help in this way isn’t accessible or fair. New students may especially struggle to understand what help is available or even if it’s right for them. One student expressed, “as I was only a few days into uni, I didn’t have anyone to talk it through with and I didn’t know of any of the student services available. This made me feel like I needed to deal with it alone.” The same student also felt inequipped to deal with sexual violence stating that, “it felt like they didn’t care beyond doing the bare minimum and saying that consent is a thing. I wish they had given us the knowledge on how to deal with it when it happens before it did.” It appears that support resources are simply not proactive in nature, relying too heavily on these distressing events to unfold before acting.
Bath Time has also uncovered that neither the University or SU employ a Sexual Violence Liaison Officer, which means they don’t offer specialist care for victims of sexual violence. SVLOs have been hired by many other institutions to establish reporting, protection and care options available to students from internal and external organisations. A student representative from the University of York reported, “simple awareness training does not prepare staff for the complexities of dealing with incidents of sexual violence, which is why appointing a dedicated officer is such a step forward for York”. When asked about the one-day training that staff received in an FOI, the University stated that this was delivered by a specialist from Durham University. It remains unclear why the University of Bath has yet to employ its own specialist instead of relying on another institution to adequately equip its staff.
In recent months, online anonymous university pages have seen a massive increase in sexual harassment related ‘confessions’. Many students revealed their disappointment with how the University has handled their complaints with even some suggestion of feeling victim-blamed and others revealing their lack of want to report it officially. It can only be questioned why students would choose an anonymous forum over ‘qualified’ staff.
When asked about the results of our investigation, a University of Bath spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of our students is paramount and we do not tolerate harassment or violence towards members of our community. Our guidelines for supporting students who report being sexually assaulted or harassed have been developed in conjunction with The Bridge, a well-respected Sexual Assault Referral Centre, and align with national guidance.Our Dignity and Respect Policy was developed in consultation with students and addresses all relevant forms of misconduct. Our new discipline policies were written with survivors of sexual violence and hate crime in mind. As such, we offer wellbeing support and encourage representation throughout the disciplinary process, ensure that a student making a report of misconduct and a student accused of misconduct do not appear at a disciplinary panel at the same time, and provide trauma-informed investigations training for staff involved in the disciplinary process.”
Following our summer investigation into sexual misconduct, the SU and University offered assurances that procedures would be improved. Whilst a step has been made in the right direction, it is frustrating to discover that members of our community continue to be let down by weak and ambiguous policies. There are still too many obstacles facing those brave enough to make a report. Issuing fines and allowing perpetrators to serve bans during holiday periods does little to show a victim that their case has been taken seriously. Our students and our victims deserve better. As readers of Bath Time and members of our student community, join us in demanding more.
We encourage you to take up the opportunity to have your say on how the University of Bath handles sexual violence. Bath Amnesty has been working on a list of demands to present to the University and the Office for Students is holding national consultations on their proposals for the regulation of harassment and sexual misconduct across universities. The feedback form provides an invaluable opportunity to share your thoughts on past, present and future policies. It closes on 27th March 2020 and can be accessed at https://survey.officeforstudents.org.uk/s/harassmentconsultation.
By demanding more support from the University, we hope to empower victims to report their experiences under a system they can trust to consistently deliver the promises of #NeverOK. It is only through working together to continue to push for change that we can ensure victims are treated fairly and with the respect they deserve. Students at the University of Bath must be able to report, knowing that they have the support.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, please refer to the contacts below.
Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (0808 801 0465)
SARSAS provide detailed guidelines and support documents for victims of sexual violence. The website also offers emotional and practical advice for family, friends and partners too. Survivors can be referred for counselling, with the option of up to 24 sessions. They also have a volunteering team on hand to offer one-to-one listening support for up to 20 sessions.
Safe Link (0333 323 1543)
Safe Link offers support for anyone who has been the victim of sexual violence. The team of independent sexual violence advisers can offer one-to-one support. Safe Link also runs peer support groups. Irrespective of whether you have reported to the police, you can access their services across the whole of Avon and Somerset. More information can be found here: https://safelinksupport.co.uk
VOCAS (03333 447928)
VOCAS is a free and confidential advocacy service for adult victims of crime. The team offers practical and emotional support to help individuals cope and recover from their experience. If a person engages with the criminal justice system, VOCAS can offer support throughout this process. Their information can be found here: https://swanadvocacy.org.uk/vocas/
Off the Record
Off the Record Bath offers counselling and listening support to improve the emotional health and wellbeing of young people. The counselling team offers 6 to 12 sessions for people aged up to 25. You can complete self-referral form here: https://www.offtherecord-banes.co.uk/contact
SU Advice and Support Centre (01225 38 6906)
The Advice & Support Centre can guide and support you with any problems you may have during your time at university. The team can offer confidential, independent and non- judgemental information, advice and support. The centre can be found in the lower level of the SU.
Wellbeing Team (01225 383838)
The team of advisers provide wellbeing and welfare advice to all students. You can drop in or arrange an appointment with an adviser in 4 West.