What will it take for sexual assault to be taken seriously in higher education?
There is no soft opening for statistics like this. According to a report by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room, 62% of students studying at a higher education facility in the UK will have experienced sexual assault in some capacity whilst studying at university.
8% of these students would have been raped, which is double the national average.
With such high numbers of assaults happening to those studying at higher education institutions, Universities should be well equipped to handle such matters carefully and efficiently. Anonymous reporting schemes, dedicated on-site specialists and concrete punishment structures are essential to ensure this happens.
The frustrating fact is that very few universities implement any of these strategies. Just 2 per cent of respondents in the above survey who had experienced sexual violence whilst studying felt able to report it to their university. Many were unsatisfied with the process.
These figures are alarming. An institution that can only help victims 2 per cent of their victims is not a safe one. What is valued so much higher than the safety of victims that could allow this dramatic failure of justice to happen? Are we just so far behind when it comes to having historic institutes brought up to date on important issues?
Or are universities simply handing out punishments that are far too lenient to protect their own interests?
This has been suggested as an explanation for a case in the news this week, in that expelled Warwick university students would be allowed to continue their studies after only a year of suspension, despite being given a ten-year ban following sexually derogatory comments made in a group chat.
The comments included rape threats and discussion of raping women from the university, including flatmates of some of the accused and disabled students. The chats also contained unsettling use of racist language, discussion of carrying out FGM (female genital mutilation) and paedophilia.
After the initial disciplinary investigation by the university, five students were suspended; two were excluded for 10 years, two were excluded for one year, and one was given a lifetime campus ban.
But a recent amendment to the penalties means that four of the five men will be allowed to return to their studies in September, sparking outrage online from students and parents of potential university attendees.
What’s more is that the university has admitted that their Director of Press was in charge of the initial investigation, casting doubt over the way the entire situation was handled. If this is true, the university could be found to have operated under a conflict of interest, putting the case in danger and the victims at higher risk.
In an open letter about the decision to let the boys return to the university, one of the students that had been targeted by the men in the chat said:
“Does the university want its students to feel that such threats, comments and ‘jokes’ are acceptable and normal?
“You expect us to return from semesters abroad and study alongside these men? You expect prospective students to continue applying to a university that prioritises them over those of us who do not feel safe?
“It is a source of shame for past, present and future Warwick alumni that you lack the courage to stand by us.”
A petition for the students to be banned from the university more permanently has now reached 24,000 signatures (at the time of writing), but the damage has already been done.
The University of Warwick has already demonstrated where their loyalties and commitments lie in this case, and it appears that so far, it has not done enough to protect the women that were affected and may continue to be affected by the men in this case.
Whether examining the country-wide statistics, or the case by case details, no one can deny that more assistance, attention and dedication needs to be given to making sure that victims of sexual assault and violence in higher education are taken more seriously.
I dread to think what it will take to make them listen.
Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30 and 7-9:30) rapecrisis.org.uk