York University researcher leads the way in researching sexual misconduct in higher education with new study


Orla McAndrew (she/her) interviewed Dr Anna Bull about her research into gender based violence and harassment in higher education

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Image by Ellen Morris

By Orla McAndrew

TW: This article will discuss sexual harassment and abuse

In the recent weeks, University of York lecturer and researcher Dr Anna Bull and her colleague, Senior Research Associate Erin Shannon, released a report on higher education following the #MeToo movement.

The report focused on gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), and interviewed students targeted by other students, students targeted by staff and staff targeted by other members of staff.

The report uncovered that whilst there was evidence of good quality specialist support offered to students, this support was not extended to staff. There is a huge variation when it comes to reporting GBVH; each higher education institution handles it differently, from level of investment, the policies in place, whether specialist staff are employed and the institution's willingness to take robust actions against reports.

The overall finding of the study is that actions are urgently needed at sector-levels, with a focus on institutional change throughout  organisations that deal with students. You can find more information about the study here, the study was done with the 1752 Group

Nouse sat down with Dr Anna Bull to find out more about the study, and the 1752 group.

Can you tell me a little bit about your role  at the University?

I'm a senior lecturer in education and social justice, and my role involves research and teaching. Over the last few years, my research has focused on sexual harassment and sexual violence and higher education. I've done a lot of work on staff to student  harassment, but also on reporting processes; the experiences of students and staff when they report sexual violence or harassment to the university, and how well universities deal with it.

And how does this tie into your work with 1752 Group?

I first started working on staff to student sexual harassment back in 2015. I had just finished my PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. Some of my friends (who were PhD students) had been having ongoing problems for years with staff harassing students. They had tried their best to deal with it but the university just didn’t have the appropriate processes in place to deal with it.

So my route into this research was as an activist, to try and support my peers and make change. But along the way we realised that this was actually a problem across the UK, so we set up the 1752 Group. We originally worked to address the issue of staff to student sexual misconduct, although we now work more widely across sexual violence at universities in general.

Why did you call yourselves the 1752 Group?

We call ourselves the 1752 group to signify the amount of money that Goldsmiths gave us to address this issue at our first conference. By the time of that 2015 conference, my colleagues had been fighting Goldsmiths for three years to try and sort this out, and so Goldsmiths gave us £1752 and kind of said ‘Ok, sort this out’. Obviously this did not solve the problem, so we chose our name as a reminder that these sticking plaster solutions and tiny amounts of money when you've got an endemic problem, are  not going to help.

Did you think that you would be working on this research for so long?

We set up in 2016 and since then I have completed my PhD and started as a lecturer. I did not think that seven years later, I would still be working on this issue. I kind of thought that, you know, we'd really push it for two or three years, and we would get it sorted and then I'd be able to move on. But unfortunately, it hasn't been the case and in a lot of universities across the UK, it's still not safe to report sexual harassment from staff.

What kind of roadblocks have you encountered?

So early on a block we had was people saying ‘Oh, this isn’t a big issue’ and ‘Oh, this hardly ever happens’. We knew that this issue could not be dismissed and was probably a lot bigger than people thought. This is because it's really difficult and scary for a student to report a lecturer or a member of staff. So we worked with the National Union of Students in 2018, and published a national survey of staff to student sexual harassment. We found that a significant number of people were experiencing sexualized comments or unwanted touching and sometimes it wasn't a problem for them. But other times it was having serious impacts, making them skip classes, change their modules, change their degree courses, even change their careers. Once we got these responses we knew we had evidence that there was an issue.

How have universities been dealing with this?

I think part of the issue is that universities have been kind of battered in the last few years, with Covid-19, industrial action, the cost of living crisis, and lack of government support. There's just been other seemingly more urgent priorities, although I would disagree with that. Even though there's been a lot of action in some universities, on student to student sexual harassment, staff to student harassment is just a lot more complicated.

In what ways is staff-student GBVH more complicated?

It’s a more complex issue because you've got to get HR involved, you've got to work together with Student Services and with academic staff, and you've got to work across different parts of the university. There’s also a cultural element. We've seen, with the issue around staff to student relationships, there’s a pushback. In a lot of other professions, there are really clear boundaries, around what's okay for staff, in terms of their professional relationships. If they're social workers, with their clients, or if they're doctors, with their patients. But for some reason, there is still resistance to that at universities. And I think it's partly because staff don't necessarily want the university to have any more power over them. They don't trust the university to use that power if they have the power to regulate them. And, I think wrongly they see this as being interfering in their personal life.

Has any of your research shown what students think?

My research has shown that around 80 percent of students in the two studies that I have done are uncomfortable with staff having sexual or romantic relationships with students. So students, for the most part, don't want this and would just rather have really clear, you know, teaching learning relationships with staff. So I just don't see why we have this resistance.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your research?

I've done quite a few different pieces of research in this area. We did the survey with the National Union of Students in 2018. Then I also did a qualitative study where I interviewed students who had reported staff sexual harassment to their university, to find out what was going wrong in the reporting process. That opened up a can of worms, so then I did a bigger study looking specifically at the kind of complaints and reporting processes. And I realised it wasn't just staff to students, it was staff to staff reporting. That’s why my new study is focusing on Higher Education after #MeToo.

Who did you speak to for this study?

I spoke to both people who reported sexual harassment and violence to the university since #MeToo. We also spoke to the people working in universities handling these reports, so people in Student Services, in HR, and academic staff. These are the people who receive the reports and have to deal with them. We found across the board, they actually agreed that  there's still a long way to go in how universities are handling these cases.

How does each university having different processes impact students reporting GBVH?

I think in the UK, universities are really proud of being autonomous. They don't like the idea of regulation. They want to be doing things independently, they want to be running things the way it is in their institution. They don't want the government, the Office for Students, which is the regulator in England for higher education, to be telling them what to do. But the problem with that is there are some universities that will put a lot of resources into this. So here at York, we have seen a lot of resources put into student-student sexual violence support in recent years. But then, in other universities, they have nothing in place. You can still have minimum standards in place as to what universities are expected to do and that's really what we urgently need. There's no regulation or legal requirements in this area and that is very unfair. Universities should investigate these issues, and they should support students and keep them safe. It's not that radical.

How does the power imbalance between staff and students affect reporting on GBVH?

I've spoken to so many people who have either tried to report GBVH and have kind of been put off because either people don't know what to do, or they're not confident that they're going to be kept safe and supported. Or they just say, well, actually, I'm the one who's going to come off worse here, because he's got more power. And I'm using gendered terms here, because it's much more likely to be a male staff member assaulting a female student, although there are cases of that I'm aware of male staff assaulting and harassing male students as well. When you look at the university structures, the staff actually do have more power. Students are right to be nervous, and there needs to be more that's put in place to make sure that they've got clear rights and support in that process to make it safe for them to report.

Is there a difference between how postgraduate and undergraduate students are treated?

Some students believe it is acceptable to have a relationship with a staff member, and other students don’t even know that there aren’t any rules about it, and are quite surprised by that.  But I think you don't necessarily think about it until it becomes an issue. It's not until students realise that there's something going on, that they're uncomfortable with, or it might not be something that's happening to them. And then they kind of think ‘is there not anything in place to stop this?’. I think it's also that postgraduate students are more likely to be targeted by staff than undergrads, because post grads get more one-on-one time and have close relationships with staff. Undergraduates definitely are targeted sometimes but it's more likely to be postgrads. There's examples that I've come across of, you know, staff being on campus and having their dating app, you know, Tinder or Grindr, open with the age range set to eighteen and being on campus with that setting. And that raises the question: is that okay, or not?

Has social media played a role in how staff and students interact?

Social media raises a lot of questions, is it okay for staff to be friends with students on social media? Like, can that be a really good learning opportunity? Or is that too much of a blurring between personal and professional life? That's something that we've got much more mixed reactions about in my research, I think it probably depends on the platform, it depends on the behaviour. Unfortunately, on X (formally known as Twitter), which is more of a professional platform, but there is evidence of staff using it to start direct messaging students and build up a personal, intimate relationship.It's often what people describe as grooming behaviour. So even though both students and staff are adults, there's such a huge age range and status and power differential, that students experience grooming. They look back and think well hold on, there was a massive power imbalance and, I didn't realise what was going on at the time. So that's how it can be experienced.

What do you think would be beneficial for students to feel safe when reporting GBVH?

The first and most important thing is, specialist support from people who really understand sexual harassment and sexual violence. You need people who understand that often people blame themselves, understand the power dynamics involved, understand the reactions that survivors have, and give them that support and work with them to be able to make their own choices and have control over the situation. Secondly, universities need to do a lot better about protecting people who come forward, because it's often terrifying to do that. You're worried that the staff member who has a lot of power over you, they're going to talk to their colleagues or retaliate against you. Students need to be reassured that they will be kept safe. It needs to be made clear what they're going to do if they receive reports. More generally, students' rights are not as strong as they should be. Students are the ones who are only here short term, who are paying fees, who may not have very good representation. I think we actually just need a lot more, and stronger rights for students to have a more even playing field.

Are we on the right track for a solution to this problem?

The Office for Students has just been consulting on whether universities should prohibit or regulate staff-student relationships or to keep a register of relationships to make sure that there is no abuse of power going on. I want to say more just generally that universities really respond to student activism and students raising their voices. If students feel strongly on this issue and want to see change they need to make their voices heard.

If you have been affected by anything in this article or wish to access the University’s support for GBVH, you can access the University of York’s report and support tool here.