New EVAW Briefing: UK universities obliged to protect women students from abuse & harassment

14 January 2015

Following Obama intervention on ‘campus rape’ in the US, and reports of alarming levels of assaults in the UK, new legal briefing challenges vice-chancellors to check their policy & practice

Download the briefing

A new legal briefing published today (14 January) shows that UK universities are legally obliged to protect women students from sexual assault and other forms of violence against women - and that many are likely to be in breach of these obligations. It is estimated that 1 in 7 women students are assaulted during their time as students (1).


The 19pp briefing, commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition (2) and authored by leading public lawyer Louise Whitfield, shows how Human Rights and Equality law can render existing university and college policies and procedures with regard to abuse of women unlawful, such as universities/colleges failing to investigate a report of rape and regarding it as a purely external police matter (3).


The law says that universities and colleges must be able to demonstrate that they took women’s equality and safety into account when developing policy on accommodation, governance for student societies, campus security and more.


The legal briefing, ‘Spotted: Obligations to Protect Women Students’ Safety & Equality,’ also argues that the misuse of university resources – including the use of university computers or email addresses to abuse and harass women students, or allowing the promotion of sexist or discriminatory events such as a ‘Freshers Violation’ night - may be unlawful. 


The briefing concludes with guidance for students who want to seek redress from their institution following discrimination or harassment or to improve university responses to sexual and other forms of violence, including instructions on taking a case to the Equality & Human Rights Commission or seeking judicial review.


Briefing co-author Louise Whitfield said:


“The law is clear that higher and further education institutions in the UK are required to ensure that women students are protected from discrimination and harassment, but there are worrying indications that many are not doing so.


“UK universities whose policies at present would lead them for example not to investigate a rape allegation and to regard it as purely a police matter, are failing to protect women students and are very likely to be in breach of the law.


“Similarly, the law is clear that higher and further education institutions should be proactively seeking to ensure women students are safe and equal while they study, and if there is misuse of university property to harass women, if women’s safety is not considered when organising student accommodation, or if university buildings are used for events which might encourage harassment and abuse of women, there may well be breaches of the law.”


EVAW Coalition Acting Director Sarah Green said:


“There are alarming reports about levels of sexual assault in UK universities and we believe universities and further education colleges are not doing enough to prevent these. Our new briefing shows that the law already requires universities and further education institutions to take steps to ensure women students’ safety.


“Universities often provide students with accommodation as well as educational facilities as well as other pastoral and social services. We currently have a situation where women in the workplace are accorded more protection than young women who live as well as study at university. We know that some women students have dropped out of university following abuse that was not adequately dealt with by the institution. This cannot be allowed to continue.


“These issues are already being raised in individual universities some of whom appear to be in breach of the law. We urge all vice-chancellors to look at their existing policies and practices with urgency and to revise them if necessary before they are challenged.


“We will soon be writing to the Government, and to higher and further education leaders with our concerns, and we are encouraging students and university staff to take this matter up directly with the leaders of their institutions.”


The EVAW Coalition will soon approach university and college leaders and recommend that they take some of the following recommended steps to ensure they are complying with the law:

  • Monitor levels of violence against women through surveys of  female students and staff
  • Ensure the college or university is linked to a local specialist support service like Rape Crisis for student referral whether or not abuse is reported to police
  • Invest in staff training on violence against women and girls
  • Develop policies with staff, students and women's groups to address all forms of VAWG alongside clear response procedures
  • Implement violence prevention and bystander programmes which empower students to recognise abuse and intervene when they witness problematic behaviour.


The issue of sexual assault on university campuses has been major news in the US for several years. Following lobbying by students President Obama developed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault which sets up requirements for monitoring, staff training and bystander programmes.




Notes to editors:


  1. NUS, ‘Hidden Marks’, 2012 
  2. The End Violence Against Women Coalition is the UK’s largest coalition of organisations working to eradicate violence against women and girls; members include Eaves, Fawcett Society, Forward, Imkaan, Jewish Women’s Aid, Newham Asian Women’s Project, Rape Crisis England and Wales, Refuge, Respect, Southall Black Sisters, Standing Together, Women in Prison, Women’s Aid, WRC, The Women’s Institute, Amnesty International UK and the TUC.
  3. This is because disciplinary procedures should not apply a criminal burden of proof, and a failure to investigate assault can contribute to impunity for assault and be detrimental to all women students’ rights.

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