Scale of sexual abuse in UK universities likened to Savile and Catholic scandals
Stories of more than 100 women shared with Guardian expose pattern of harassment which remains largely hidden
staff has been likened to the scandals involving the Catholic church and
Jimmy Savile in accounts shared by more than 100 women with the Guardian.
Their stories – including those of verbal bullying, serial
harassment, assault, sexual assault and rape – expose an alarming
pattern of abuse and harassment in British universities which remains
A number of contributors drew parallels with the abuse scandals affecting the Catholic church and Savile, the disgraced late TV star.
Many women said they had not pursued complaints for fear of
jeopardising their academic careers. Those who did complain said they
felt isolated and unprotected, while the more powerful men they accused
appeared to be untouchable.
The women’s accounts follow an exclusive Guardian report on the use of non-disclosure agreements in university sexual harassment cases.
Rachel Krys, the co-director of End Violence Against Women,
called for urgent change within universities to both prevent senior
male academics abusing positions of power and develop better processes
to bring them to account.
“We know this is happening to young women at universities across the
country and they continue to be failed by the institutions in which they
put their trust,” Krys said. “Our universities need to listen more to
the women who are coming forward and telling these stories. They need to
investigate properly when there is an allegation of abuse, and act
quickly to protect all women from these perpetrators.”
According to EVAW, UK universities are legally obliged under human
rights and equality laws to protect female students from sexual assault
and other forms of violence against women. Their analysis of
universities’ policies concluded that many were likely to be in breach
of these obligations.
Later this month Universities UK (UUK) is publishing its long awaited
report on sexual violence and harassment in universities, but there is
concern that it will focus on “lad culture” and incidents between
students, rather than those involving staff and students, which have
remained largely under the radar.
The majority of cases reported to the Guardian involve senior male
academics, often professors, harassing and abusing younger female PhD
students whose work they supervise. There are also accounts from
undergraduates and female academics, while a small number of other
allegations involve assault, male-on-male harassment and one allegation
of sexual assault by a female lecturer.
Many of the accounts indicate that universities are failing in their
duty of care to students and staff who are harassed. One female academic
who made a complaint of sexual harassment against a more senior male
colleague – against whom there had been previous complaints – said she
was marched off the university premises and suspended for three months
after he accused her of making a false allegation.
Another female academic who complained to HR of being sexually
assaulted by a more senior male colleague, was then interviewed by two
male colleagues. “I was so traumatised and ashamed, not only by the
assault but by having to give details of the assault to two men (one of
whom seemed to regard me as a waste of space) that I did not take my
complaint to the next formal level.”
In another statement, a PhD student, who brought a complaint after
being raped by a senior member of staff with whom she was in a
relationship, described her sense of utter powerlessness: “He is a
renowned professor. He can do what he wants.”
incidents are reported to have taken place at a variety of institutions
across the UK, including prestigious and high-ranking Russell Group
universities. Some date back to the 1980s and 90s, but most are recent
and many are ongoing, and in the majority of cases the women involved
have asked to remain anonymous, and their institutions unnamed, because
of fear of repercussions.
Jennifer Saul, professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield
and an expert on sexual harassment in higher education, said she was
not surprised by the deluge of stories: “There’s a systemic problem. Too
often, victims are afraid to come forward for fear (well-justified) of
“When they do come forward, often they are brushed off or not
believed. When they are believed, their allegations are still often
dismissed as unprovable. Even when things are taken more seriously,
harassers are generally allowed to leave quietly, which enables them to
move some place else and do the same thing.”
Many of the women who made complaints to their institutions said they
felt they were the ones on trial, while alleged perpetrators were often
protected by management who feared losing a star researcher and their
A number of respondents said their harassers were allowed to
remain in post; some moved to other institutions without facing any
formal investigation or disciplinary action, leaving them with an
unblemished employment record and the opportunity to continue preying on
“They don’t know where he is or what he is doing, and they don’t
care. He is not their problem any more,” said one female academic whose
sexual harassment complaint resulted in her senior colleague leaving
with a financial settlement and a non-disclosure agreement which
prevents any discussion of the case.
A number of PhD students described their excitement to be working
with eminent professors, only to find themselves under pressure to enter
into more intimate relationships. When they refused, they were
ostracised and neglected by their supervisor, putting their academic
future at risk.
“My (much older) supervisor kept messaging me for naked photos of
myself,” said another student who didn’t report the incidents. “When I
refused he told me I was probably going to get raped. He was very well
liked, and I knew he would never be punished for it.”
Another contributor said: “The culture [in universities] is very
sexualised. It’s very, very macho. Whenever complaints arise, they are
covered up. In general society there’s been a shift in the way in which
complaints of sexual misconduct are dealt with – in higher education,
not so much.”
A UUK spokesperson said the forthcoming report would identify best
practice in a range of areas which would be shared across all
universities. “The university sector has been clear that there is no
place for violence and sexual harassment on a university campus, nor
“Universities across the UK already have a range of initiatives and
policies in place to address these issues, including policies on
far the higher education sector will enforce the report’s
recommendations remains to be seen. A number of universities have
instigated reviews of their own policies and practices in response to
individual cases within their institution.
The University of Sussex has commissioned an independent inquiry into
its handling of the assault of a postgraduate student by a lecturer.
The media lecturer Lee Salter met Allison Smith during induction week
and they began a relationship. But in September 2015, he punched her,
knocked her out, stamped on her and threw salt at her face. He was found
guilty of assault by beating and causing criminal damage on 13 July at
Brighton magistrates court.
In the 10 months between his arrest and sentence, he continued to
teach at the university, to Smith’s distress. “Their policies were clear
that he should have been suspended,” she said. “It felt very damaging
that the institution would do this. It started to feel that their
reputation was more important. They swept me under the carpet and that
Salter, who pleaded not guilty in court and received a 22-week
suspended jail sentence, was issued with a restraining order not to
contact Smith. He has appealed against his convictions.
More than 300 Sussex University staff and students sent a letter to
the vice chancellor, Adam Tickell, calling on the university to
“investigate and publicly acknowledge its mishandling of the case [and]
establish a taskforce to comprehensively examine university policy and
practice on issues of violence and harassment”.
Tickell, who was appointed after the alleged incident and launched
the inquiry at the start of his tenure, has promised to appoint a deputy
pro-vice chancellor for equalities. “I believe strongly that this
institution should learn lessons from this case and rectify any
failings, and I’m committed to ensuring that Sussex does what is right
for our community,” he said.
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