Sexual harassment is a problem for every university in the country, and it's the universities who are to blame

8 Mar 2014

University is an exciting and testing time for anyone, but one way in which students should not be tested is in terms of their right to personal space and right not to be harassed. Sadly however, sexual harassment at university is a problem for every single university in the UK and one which many universities have categorically failed to act on.

Whether incidents of sexual harassment at British universities have increased in number in recent years or if we as a society are simply more aware of them because they merit more coverage in the press than in previous decades is debatable, but what is not debatable is this: sexual harassment is not okay.


It’s not okay in any context, in any situation or walk of life, but it is particularly shaming in the context of university life because of the collective failure of British universities to- in an age where women are objectified on a daily basis in the media and on websites such as educate their students on this matter and hammer home the message that everyone deserves to be able to enjoy their education without fear of being harassed. 

Plenty of universities have signed up to the National Union of Students (NUS)’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy on sexual harassment, but the effectiveness of this policy very much depends on how it is implemented, and there is little evidence to suggest the effective implementation of the policy and positive results across the board. The NUS’ Hidden Marks report, published in 2010, revealed that 68 per cent of graduates had been sexually harassed at their university campus as a student.

Cambridge University’s student union (CUSU) are one students union which deserve credit for their implementation of the policy and said on their website in 2011: 

“CUSU will now be reviewing its own disciplinary and complaints procedure to ensure that they fit with the zero tolerance policy, and we will be including the comprehensive definition of sexual harassment in the Freshers' Guide for 2012, along with our commitment to making the University of Cambridge Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment. We will also be campaigning to publically challenge the normalization of sexual harassment.”

This last line is a key point and highlights where other universities have not been as proactive on the issue as Cambridge. Just about every university in the UK claims to have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on sexual harassment and other forms of bullying and discrimination. But very few actually enforce their own policy in practice, let alone have a student union which has made a concerted effort to change attitudes in a student culture which all too often revolves around young men attempting to prove their ‘masculinity’ by approaching young women in clubs and bars in an aggressive, animalistic fashion. 

Why does this culture prevail? CUSU have hit the nail on the head- sexual harassment has been normalised at university. Too few universities have publicly campaigning against it and made a concerted effort to change attitudes and educate their students. Most merely hide behind a grandiose ‘zero tolerance’ policy which sounds impressive but all too often doesn’t really mean anything and isn’t enforced, either by universities or by elected student representatives. 

In addition, all too frequently it is not simply a failure to educate their students about sexual harassment and pursue a clear line which is then enforced where universities are culpable. Themed club nights such as ‘Rappers v Slappers’ and ‘CEOs and Corporate Hoes’ don’t just contribute to the normalisation of sexual harassment- they encourage it. 

Last month, at the hustings for the student elections at my own university, in response to a question asking how he would deal with sexual harassment on campus, one candidate described sexual harassment as ‘one of those big issues that happens in the workplace and at university’ and recommended that the university ‘maybe create a service where people can go to for advice’.

I followed up the question by asking of the candidate: “Do you not think that it is quite a reactionary policy to invite people to talk to you about sexual harassment after it’s happened to them- do you not think you should be trying to change attitudes and stop it happening in the first place?”

The candidate again struggled to answer the question and stated that ‘there have been policies in place where the university has a very open solution for sexual harassment- having these policies in place is what reduces the amount of sexual harassment that happens’, but did not specify what these policies were, before adding that he was unsure ‘how much of an issue’ sexual harassment was within the university and was equally unsure whether the university’s policy on sexual harassment was enforced or not. 

I am not trying to stigmatise this particular individual for his comments; he was simply a badly prepared candidate who hadn’t done his homework and really wasn’t suited to the position he was running for. However, his comments and failure to address what is for me one of the most important issues for students at any university in the UK were symptomatic of the failure of many UK universities to tackle the problem head on. 

Last year, Colum McGuire, welfare officer for Kent University SU, said: 

"Often it seems like institutions are quick to shy away from tackling sexual harassment on campuses as they don't want to accept it's a problem they could be seen as responsible for. What we need to acknowledge is that's it's a product of society and therefore mirrored on our campuses and as an education sector we should be leading the way in tackling this social issue.” 

McGuire’s comments were refreshing, but even that in itself is depressing; that an elected student representative who is keen to tackle UK universities’ sexual harassment problem head on is seen as a break from the norm. 

So what now? 

An article in the Independent in April 2013 claimed that ‘we must do more to fight sexual harassment at university’, but there is little evidence to suggest that the fight is being won. Ultimately, there will be no victory until every university in the UK starts taking sexual harassment seriously. The press offices of UK universities would doubtless explode if you put it to them that their university doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. But faux outrage is not going to win this battle- action is. It’s in the hands of the universities: make a change now, take a stand and educate your students outside of lecture halls as well as in them, or risk having young people being put off going to university at all. 

By Alex Shilling

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