The scale of sexual harassment and gender violence by UK university 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 largely hidden.
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.”
The 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 retaliation.
“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 funding.
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 students elsewhere.
“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 anywhere else.
“Universities across the UK already have a range of initiatives and policies in place to address these issues, including policies on student-staff relationships.”
How 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 was 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 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.