News Analysis: Sexual Harassment ‘Epidemic’ Levels in UK Colleges

ON 5th of March, the Guardian released a lengthy investigative piece that discovered  ‘sexual harassment, misconduct and gender violence by university staff are at epidemic levels’ throughout third-level institutions in the UK.A series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests made by the Guardian revealed that at least 169 allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct and gender violence were made against staff at 120 universities between 2011 and 2017. However experts of university sexual assault warn that the real numbers could be much higher.The investigation looked at survivors and victims who told the Guardian that they had been discouraged by the administration from making complaints, and that too often the perpetrators had been allowed to switch departments or jobs after an allegation, rather than face a hearing. For many survivors and victims of sexual harassment, misconduct and gender violence, the reporting process can be harrowing and rife with retaliation from fellow students, other members of staff, or administrators protecting the universities.While the work done by the Guardian has brought much needed attention to the issues of university cover-ups or ignorance, it remains to be seen whether or not their claims of ‘epidemic levels’ are in fact as ground-breaking as they state they are. Sceptics have highlighted that allegations must not be reiterated as fact and have the potential to be false, despite the fact that national rape services put the number of false allegations somewhere between only 2% and 8%, the same as other crimes.Critics have also cautioned against using the terms ‘epidemic’, pointing out that while 169 allegations over the course of 6 years is a definite problem, it is not the crisis that the Guardian claims.Regardless of the headline used by the Guardian, it remains clear that the issues of sexual harassment, misconduct and gender violence on university campuses across the UK is an issue that needs a serious and concrete solution.Following an increase in attention surrounding the issue of sexual assault on American and UK universities, many have taken steps to increase education and awareness for students, emphasising that sexual assault and harassment of any kind has no place on a university campus.While statements, issued by the likes of the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh, signal a potential shift in the attitudes of administrations, concrete changes to policy and reporting systems need to occur to ensure that all students are enjoying their right to an education.