The report of the University UK Taskforce on violence against women is published today. The Taskforce was established last year in response to campaigning by EVAW and high profile cases brought by women who experienced appalling treatment while at university.
Sarah Green, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition said:
“We welcome today’s report from Universities UK as a positive first step in tackling the very high levels of sexual violence and harassment in the UK’s universities.
“The recommendations that universities should adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to sexual assaults and harassment, ensure staff are trained in responding and work in partnership with other agencies are extremely laudable, as is the recognition that the ‘Zellick guidelines’ had become unlawful and their revision.
“But, this is only a first step because while these intentions are good, UUK do not propose any mechanism for enforcement, monitoring is left to individual institutions and there are no recommendations to Government for a change in the law should universities not comply with the recommendations. The Secretary of State who mandated this Taskforce last year was clear that if universities didn’t take action quickly, the Government would step in and consider further regulation. We need to hear urgently from the Government whether it regards this voluntarism as adequate or whether there should now be external oversight.
“While we recognise the effort and reflection in the UUK Taskforce, we strongly feel that given the scale of sexual assaults and harassment in our universities, and given that they serve, educate, house and sometimes provide other welfare services for women from the age of 18, which is the section of the female population most subject to sexual violence, our universities should aim for a standard of protection on a par with safeguarding. The further education sector already works to this standard (because it educates some students of a slightly younger age). External regulation would be needed to ensure these standards were met. Legislation may be needed to achieve this.
“The Taskforce was established in the wake of women students in the USA and here in the UK revealing their treatment by institutions after abusive behaviour. There has been a growing realisation that our institutions aren’t doing enough to prevent or respond to sexual violence. The Taskforce gathered evidence from a broad range of stakeholders and specialists and is in a position to provide leadership on this issue. We hope that the Department for Education will take the next step and show what standards of protection and care it expects UK universities to provide to women students.”
Abuse by staff
Overall, while the report provides many recommendations regarding peer-on-peer harassment and abuse, this has been a missed opportunity to make it clear that women face abuse from both staff and peers, and that universities need policies which prevent and respond to both scenarios. Reports last week detailed the shocking experiences of some post-graduate students at the hands of senior staff, and we know staff on student abuse is part of the problem women face. We would like to see regulations put in place which prevent sexual relationships between staff and students. Where the student is a post-graduate and those boundaries are blurred we would like it made clear that if you mark someone’s work, you can’t have a sexual relationship with them. This would go some way to tackling the abusive and exploitative relationships which sometimes form. This report does nothing to tackle that.
Equality and human rights obligations
It is important to take a step back and remember that universities have duties under the Equality Act and Human Rights Act. We would have welcomed more reference to this in the report and new guidance. Students are not merely ‘consumers’, they have rights and can hold institutions to account when they fail to protect them. Universities have a duty of care to their students and the obligations placed on them mean they have to be proactive in protecting women’s rights. This duty is not reflected in the new guidelines.
Last year Sajid Javid, then Business Secretary, said this Taskforce will ensure that universities have a plan to stamp out violence against women and provide a safe environment for all their students. We will hope that what we see today is the first step in making that happen.