When Will Universities Get Their ‘Weinstein Moment’?

This year, survivors of sexual violence finally had enough. From the Women’s March to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, circumstances finally became too dire to keep quiet and powerful men were outed as serial aggressors. Seemingly every industry, field and sphere has been affected by the wave of sexual harassment allegations which has been gaining momentum since the publication of Ronan Farrow and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s articles exposing one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives.

And yet, in the year of my university graduation, I can’t help but notice this glaring exception. I know from my experience as a student journalist that I walked across the stage this past July as a lucky woman in several respects. Not least that in 2015, the Telegraph reported that as many as one in three women are sexually assaulted or abused on campus. Fortunately, I graduated as one of the two others.

Last October, I was getting to grips with my new role on the editorial team of my student newspaper when Universities UK published a damning report on sexual violence and hate crime on campus, which called for the so-called Zellick guidelines to be updated, if not largely reversed. The Zellick report, published in 1994, was inspired by a case in which King’s College London was forced to pay significant damages after a student they suspended following an allegation of sexual assault was found not guilty. It recommends that accusations of rape and sexual assault should never be dealt with via an internal investigation, leading to well-founded and widely-supported arguments that the advice protects universities at the expense of survivors.

While that report acknowledges the difficulties for victims in reporting an incident of sexual violence to the police, this is the only option left available to survivors. Figures from the Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and the Home Office show that only 15% of people who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police, and that 90% of survivors knew their aggressor prior to the incident.

Outraged at the epidemic of sexual violence and determined to spur university administration to follow the new guidelines laid out by Universities UK, I became one of a small group of editors conspiring to dedicate three issues worth of content to interviews, personal testimonies and thinkpieces on the topic. Although we received praise on social media from those involved in campaigning against sexual violence, our dedication and optimism was crushed merely weeks after our investigation came to an end, when we realised that few people outside of our student’s union building and the wider NUS really cared.

And it’s not just students. Back in March of this year, the Guardian reported epidemic levels of sexual harassment by staff, where survivors are both students and fellow university employees. These situations are no different, plagued by unclear reporting pathways and the issues of disclosing an assault to your aggressor’s colleague.

The lack of robust reporting pathways and staff training have wider consequences. Inaccurate figures on campus sexual violence allow universities to continue ignoring the problem and delay potential solutions. When I interviewed the then-Welfare Officer at my student’s union last November, she told me that after testifying at an Equality and Diversity Committee, one of its members told her that ‘none of her students ever got raped’. Current students who’ve participated in focus groups and task force meetings have told me that inaccurate figures, which widely differ from those provided by local Rape Crisis centres, are used to argue against placing an ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) on campus.

Despite my former Vice-Chancellor publishing a blog entitled ‘Beyond Zellick’ in the wake of the Universities UK report, epitomising the kind of high-level commitment to a zero-tolerance approach it demanded, little else has been done. Has a code of conduct been published, which, if violated, can result in the kind of internal investigation recommended by Universities UK, thereby keeping survivors of sexual violence safe? Have reporting pathways and the mechanisms used to record disclosures been improved? Have any members of staff received training to this end?

The Weinstein effect and #MeToo movement have opened the floodgates for significant change in how we approach matters of sexual violence. We can’t let them close before the wave washes over higher education.