Toxic Environments, Nonexistent Support & Factories Of Trauma: It’s Business As Usual At UK Unis

·6-min read

There are some news stories that women read about over and over again. Every time they make the headlines, we sigh and despair. The issue of sexual assault at university is one such story.

Sexual assault in higher education is a perennial news story. With every academic year, new reports emerge. The headlines might be a little different, the statistics about how many people have been subjected to assault and abuse a bit higher, but nothing is ever done to stop it happening.

Worse, students say that bad policies and poor procedures mean that those who do report assault are often re-traumatised by their higher education institution.

That’s why Refinery29 is supporting calls from campaigners The Student Survivors Coalition for Safeguarding Policies (SSCSP) to implement mandatory guidelines on how universities should investigate and record these complaints. Somewhat unbelievably, these don’t currently exist.

Refinery29 approached both the Department for Education and Universities UK to understand why such overarching and unilateral guidelines have not been drawn up. It seems this issue is falling between several stools – and the impact on survivors is profound.

Twenty-four-year-old Sydney Feder is one of the women behind SSCSP. She founded the coalition after she was sexually assaulted during her final year at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. When she complained, she didn’t hear anything from the college. In subsequent legal correspondence, the college has said that there was an investigation but Sydney was never asked to participate.

“I learned through my solicitor that the perpetrator admitted to the attack against me,” Sydney says, “but I was never told this by the college. The whole thing made me feel completely worthless.”

“I was left out of the process,” she adds. “It made me feel like they valued the perpetrator’s privacy over my sense of safety and mental health.”

Living through this experience made Sydney decide that something needed to change. We need a “baseline safeguarding policy written by the government,” she explains. “The lack of an overarching policy means that higher education institutions can prioritise their reputation over students’ safety.”

“Universities do not have the motivation or capacity to tackle rape culture,” Sydney explains. “There is no law ensuring higher education institutions have any safeguarding policies or standard process for handling sexual assault reports and investigations. This allows these business-oriented institutions to neglect and further traumatise survivors with impunity. “

The UK’s higher education institutions are not institutions of learning but rather factories of trauma.

SydNey FEDER, FOUNDER OF The Student Survivors Coalition for Safeguarding Policies

She added: “Their indifference to the safety of their students is evidenced by nonexistent safeguarding policies, difficult reporting procedures, biased and traumatic investigations and generally toxic campus environments. These are not institutions of learning but rather factories of trauma.”

The number of people impacted by this issue is significant. In 2019 a BBC investigation revealed that universities across the UK had received more than 700 allegations of sexual misconduct during the 2018/19 academic year. As part of the investigation, students accused their universities of not offering proper support. Earlier this year, student publication The Tab requested new data from 200 universities across the country. Not all responded but based on those that did, the publication reported that sexual assault reports at UK universities have more than doubled in four years, with over 3,500 incidents reported since 2015.

Based on these numbers, sexual assault at university is getting worse. Or, at least, being reported more in the wake of movements like #MeToo and Everyone’s Invited, which have encouraged women to share their stories.

So what will it take for the government to step in and impose measures which could keep students safe from sexual assault? Back in 2015 the minister who was then responsible for universities, Sajid Javid, wrote to universities across the country asking them to set up a task force to investigate the “sexual and verbal assault” against women on campuses. He wanted a code of practice developed for dealing with incidents to bring about a complete “culture change” and end “lad culture” in universities.

Six years later, we’re still talking about this. Students are still calling for change and asking for help.

Sydney concludes that the UK’s higher education institutions are not safe. She says that they will remain “unsafe until parliament prioritises student protection over institutional reputation, recognises this endemic trauma and takes drastic steps to enforce change.”

For as long as protecting students is something that higher education institutions can opt into and are not mandated to do, Sydney adds, they will “continue to choose themselves”.

You can support the SSCSP in their call for mandatory guidelines as to how universities should investigate and record sexual assault complaints here. They have an email template which you can use to contact your MP.

Refinery29 has contacted the The Department for Education for comment.

Universities UK said: “The higher education sector is clear that all students and staff are entitled to a safe and enjoyable experience at university, free from harassment and hate crime.”

“Universities have a vital role to promote a safe and inclusive environment. As a representative of the sector rather than a regulator, UUK supports our institutions by providing recommendations and frameworks to help the development of effective responses, kept flexible enough to recognise that every case is different. A single approach or response that applies in any circumstance is unlikely to be appropriate.”

“We recognise that there is a long way to go in ending harassment and hate crime for good in higher education and will continue to work with the sector to help drive improvement in this important agenda.”

A spokesperson for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama said:

“We understand how difficult it is to raise any complaint of sexual misconduct and we offer a range of confidential support around the clock. Anything reported to us is investigated thoroughly and where action is needed it will always be taken. Across the HE sector, we are proud to be joining forces to tackle issues of violence against women. As this work continues, we will always encourage anyone with concerns to talk to us.”

“These specific allegations and questions raised are the subject of a sensitive and ongoing civil compensation claim to which the College has filed a robust defence. Because we respect that legal process, it would not be right to comment further on specific details which are the subject of that claim. These allegations need to follow the proper legal process.”

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