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Sexual assault on Universities campuses: a national issue

Warning: This article contains reference to sexual assault

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Image Credit: John Husband

THE BBC HAS reported that women from 15 UK universities have formed an open letter calling for a mandatory policy for how higher education handles sexual allegations. The writers ofthe open letter stated that allegations of sexual assault were mishandled bytheir universities and have called for a “baseline safeguarding policy written by the government.”

The creator of the open letter, Sydney Feder was sexually assaulted whilst studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She told the BBC that the investigation was negligent and made her feel “worthless” and “totally left out of the process.” The letter has been signed by 13 charities and campaign groups and provides four main suggestions on how to improve,one of which outlines that each university must have a specially trained member of staff who deals with such incidences. It also suggests that testimonies during hearings should be completed away from the alleged perpetrator present and the person accused should not be allowed any communication.

These suggestions are similar to the suggestions made to the University of York in October 2020 by a collection of students,including FemSoc. In October the University updated Regulation 7:the Student Discipline Procedure to define ‘sexual misconduct’ properly and to create “clear lines of responsibility in each stage of the disciplinary process.” While Regulation 7 stilllacked clarity, it appeared as though the University of York were intending to make improvements to how allegations of sexual assault are handled.

However, this is clearly still a national problem as a recent study by the authors of Unsafe Spaces reported there are at least 50,000 sexual assaults at universities every year. This staggering figure coincides with reports from the same study that out of 102 UK universities that replied to Freedom of Information requests, only nine had “satisfactory”safeguarding policies whilst a third were deemed as having “very poor”policies for managing sexual assault allegations. The creator of the study stated that “some of these universi-ties’ policies are like stuff out of the19th century. It’s policy making in thedark. This is a national crisis.”

Currently, universities are able to make their own policies on how to handle allegations of sexual assault. However in April, the Office for Students asked universities to review their handling of sexual assault allegations after the website Every-one’s Invited saw students from morethan 80 UK universities share theirexperience of abuse whilst studying.Several Russell Group universities such as the University of Exeter and the University of Oxford were mentioned by more than 50 individuals.This has led to complaints that there is no consistency in policies across UK universities. The University of York was not mentioned specifically by the BBC but the Last Taboo released a petition in February which asked the University to launch an investigation into how it handles cases of sexual violence, especially after it was revealed that two PhD students were still allowed access to students after being found guilty of sexual assault.

Following on from this, in April the Last Taboo released the University of York Overview Report which highlighted that even though the University had improved Regulation 7, most students still do not know how to access support and were not aware of the changes being made. 84 per cent of those who answered were unaware of Regulation 7.
In response to the open letter, Universities UK has stated that “We have seen universities accelerating efforts to address harassment and misconduct in recent years... to develop policies and campaigns to raise awareness and encourage students to have the confidence to come forward to report, knowing they will be listened to and that action will be taken by the university when needed.”

We aked for York’s response to the statement, the said that “the University recognises the courage of all those who signed the open letter”and that they are “continuously re-viewing [their] procedures, practice and resources, taking into account feedback and suggestions from students.”
When asked how they are working to improve the reporting system for victims of sexual assault and harassment, they said that they are“committed to preventing, responding to, and investigating incidents of sexual violence” and that they “have appointed specialist staff to provide additional support and information to students and we are set to launch a number of new initiatives, including a new online module for staff on re-sponding to disclosures of sexual violence and the newly-formed Sexual Violence Steering Group.”

YUSU Community & WellbeingOfficer Carly Precious additionally said that “the negligence demonstrated regarding sexual assault victims nationally is despicable. Universities need to face facts, admit failings and begin to confront the problem.Having said this, I am optimistic that York is seeing a cultural shift due to ongoing campaigns by the union and the wider student body”.

If you wish to seek support for a sexual assault, either historic or recent you can get into contact with the Universities Sexual Violence Liaison Officers atwww.york.ac.uk/stude

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