What is right and what is wrong with responses to sexual violence in universities?

Posted in: Education, Evidence and policymaking, Health, Law, law enforcement and crime, Public services

Lauren Green is a BSc (Hons) Sociology student at the University of Bath. Dr Tina Skinner is Associate Professor at the University of Bath. Annabelle Stoney is a BSc (Hons) Criminology student at the University of Bath. Jade Bloomfield-Utting is a PhD student at the University of Bath. Ella Eastham-Wood is a BSc (Hons) Sociology student at the University of Bath. Jonada Osaj is a BSc (Hons) Sociology and Social Policy student at the University of Bath. Abbie Owen is a BSc (Hons) Politics and International Relations student at the University of Bath.

The Office for National Statistics (2021) found that young people are more likely to experience sexual violence than any other age group. Research by the National Union of Students in 2019 suggested that 75% of students have experienced sexual violence.

A 2021 UK-wide survey indicated that full-time students were disproportionality affected, with 93% reporting sexual harassment. Unfortunately, as academics and students, some of whom have experienced sexual violence, and/or listened as students (both male and female) have shared their stories of sexual violence, these statistics come as no surprise.

For example, in our own institution in 2020, it was revealed in the media that there were sexual misconduct complaints against members of the Bath University rugby club. However, with Revolt Sexual Assault & The Student Room in 2018 finding only 6% of students who had suffered sexual violence actually disclosed it to their university, and 2% who were able to disclose and were satisfied with the university process; there is clearly a discrepancy between students experiencing sexual violence, and those reporting it to universities, as well as between desired and actual university processes.

The consequences of unwanted sexual behaviour can substantially effect mental health/wellbeing, and negatively impact students’ academic performance, causing almost 20% to miss lectures, 17% to achieve lower grades than before the incident(s), and almost 15% to contemplate dropping out. Not only students are affected, the UCU in 2021 revealed that in the last five years one in 10 staff at colleges and universities had directly experienced sexual violence in their workplace. All the above has contributed to concerns about safety in higher education (HE) and has resulted in universities receiving increased Government and media attention regarding their responses to these issues.

Under the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty means HE institutions have a duty to actively work to eliminate discrimination, victimisation and harassment of women, ethnic minorities, LGBT and disabled people - all groups disproportionately affected by sexual violence. HE institutions must comply with this, creating equality objectives and demonstrating they are actively working to reduce victimisation.

Despite this, the Office for National Statistics (2021) estimates that students are three times more likely to experience sexual assault, than the general population. University’s duty of care should mean they are tackling this increased risk as a top priority. Unfortunately, many universities are still failing to provide appropriate support for victim-survivors of sexual violence and/or to reduce victimisation.

This blog will explore what is right and what is wrong with current responses to sexual violence at university. Firstly, we examine what is ‘positive’, including: (i) the growing number of campaigns to get universities to improve student safety, (ii) the positive interventions by Government, (iii) the steps some universities are taking to prevent sexual violence, including bystander initiatives, and (iv) improvements in victim-survivors support. We then examine where universities are going wrong: (i) lack of clear policies dedicated to sexual violence, (ii) lack of meaningful long-term intervention to tackle cultures that facilitative sexual violence, (iii) lack of staff/student awareness of procedures and services; and (iv) non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual violence cases. We recommend that to effectively address sexual violence there needs to be a whole university approach.

What’s happening that is ‘positive’?

(i) A wealth of student campaigns have aimed to increase awareness and improve university responses to sexual violence. Awareness raising, from research such as the NUS (2010, 2019) surveys, to the increased use of campaigns such as  Everyone’s Invited, Oxford University’s Student Union’s ‘It Happens Here’, and Durham University’s ‘It’s Not Ok at Durham’, have encouraged students to speak out about their experiences.

(ii) It is also positive that the Government have had an increased focus on university sexual violence policy, campaigns and services. In 2016 HEFCE (now Office for Students, OfS) funded 63 one year ‘Catalyst projects’ on safeguarding students, mainly focused on sexual violence and misconduct. Evidence provided by Universities UK (2018) and OfS (2019) suggest that when funding is specifically allocated to target sexual misconduct, individual institutions will develop good practice, expedite safeguarding work and raise awareness.

By 2020 the OfS published a ‘Statement of Expectations’ encouraging: clear and accessible reporting procedures, staff training to enable more effective student support and help, and the development of consistent and effective approaches to address sexual misconduct. More recently, the Department of Education (2022) published a statement condemning the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) by universities dealing with sexual violence cases, and encouraging universities to join their pledge to stop the use of NDAs through the ‘#can’tbuymysilence’ campaign. The need for such a pledge was highlighted when Oxford University College, Lady Margaret Hall, gained considerable media attention when it was revealed that a student who been raped was silenced by a confidentiality agreement and threatened with expulsion if she shared what happened. Lady Margaret Hall is one of only three Colleges from Oxford or Cambridge University to have signed the Pledge. As of 1 June 2022 63 Higher Education providers have committed to it in England and Wales, but this constitutes only a minority of universities.

(iii) Some institutions, often encouraged by their own academic experts, have also developed innovative responses to sexual violence. For example, Durham university have a Sexual Misconduct & Violence Operations Group that focus on preventing incidents of sexual violence, with one of the implemented policies being their anonymous reporting forum. Of particular note, is the bystander Intervention Initiative develop under the leadership of Dr Rachel Fenton, funded by Public Health England and now hosted at the University of Exeter. Bystander training attempts to challenge attitudes towards sexual violence and encourage effective bystander intervention.

Whilst systematic reviews, such as that undertaken by Bondestam and Lundqvist (2020), indicate there is very limited robust evidence of the long-term effectiveness of interventions, in part due to the difficulties and expense of high quality evaluation, evidence does indicate that there are positive effects of bystander intervention on reducing the level of sexual violence on campus. To be most effective, such programmes need to be well managed and of sufficient duration, for example, the Intervention Initiative involves eight 60-90 minute facilitated sessions. However, some bystander programmes are very short (e.g. a single 90 min bystander session at the University of Bath).

Whilst some studies indicate positive results for short interventions, DeGue et al’s (2014) systematic review indicated that low-dose educational approaches do not have consistent evidence of short-or-long-term impact. Jouriles et al (2018) also found that longer programmes are more likely to be effective than shorter ones, and any programme effects decline over time so follow-up training is needed. Whilst the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act 2013 in the USA requires all colleges/universities to implement bystander training. Currently, the UK Government only encourage the development of bystander programmes.

(iv) Alongside positive developments that attempt to prevent sexual violence, there have been improvements in victim-survivor support. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 regulatory framework Condition B2 states that students must be provided with “the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education”, and this has been encouraged for victim-survivors though the OfS Statement of Expectations.

In some universities, this is attempted through linking student-wellbeing-services to specialist support such as Sexual Assault Referral Centres. For example, the University of Bath pays for counselling support from The Bridge in Bristol to be provided in Bath. However, a more intersectional - Equality Act 2010 compatible - approach is needed, because more specialist services for men (e.g., SURVIVORSUK), LGBTQi+, disabled, ethnic, religious and language minority groups are lacking in universities. This is particularly important, because while the most likely to experience sexual violence are female, followed by non-binary students, LGBTQi+ and disabled students are also disproportionality affected, and men may also be victimised. Data is limited in this country on ethnic, religious or language minority students, but data in the USA indicates that ethnic minorities are also disproportionately affected. Relationships with appropriate and accessible specialist support services are crucial for universities to establish so victim-survivors with additional/different barriers to disclosing and receiving support can be signposted to specialist help.

Where are they going wrong?

Despite some positive moves, in 2021 Reclaim the Campus indicated that sector wide issues still need to be addressed including: (i) lack of specific sexual violence policy, and (ii) universities unwillingness and/or inability to meaningfully tackle cultures that facilitate sexual violence. Further, our own experience indicates that (iii) many students/victim-survivors are not fully aware of the processes they need to go through to make a complaint and access the support available. In addition, (iv) the use of NDA’s within the sector needlessly silences victim-survivors. In short, the 2016 Universities UK assessment, that university responses are not as comprehensive as they need to be, still stands.

(i) The Reclaim report (2021) found evidence that there was a significant gap in university policies directly relating to sexual violence. Many universities, including the University of Bath where policy in this area is currently under review, deal with sexual misconduct under other policies, such as bullying and harassment, rather than having dedicated policies in place. This can make it confusing and unclear to students and staff what policy to follow when a student reports sexual violence or indeed what the likely sanction will be.

ii) In reference to the 2021 Reclaim report assertation that universities have an inability or unwillingness to tackle cultures that facilitative sexual violence, research by Hales and Gannon (2021) indicates that one in nine male students had been involved in sexual aggression. This is self-reported, so is unlikely to represent the full extent of male sexual aggression. Spiking in nightclubs and previously mentioned negative behaviour in sports clubs indicates this is far from unusual behaviour. Although there have been many positive steps, including some genuine willingness to try to change cultures, generally there has not been the whole university approach, or indeed ecological approach, needed to address sexual violence at university.

(iii) Whilst there are numerous reporting tools at universities, students’ awareness of them and the formal complaints procedure is not consistent. Students who have raised complaints of sexual misconduct and are not satisfied with how their university has handled it, can take the complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), an independent body set up to review complains in universities. Theoretically, the OIA should provide a way to hold universities accountable for their actions and provide a way for students to raise complaints. However, despite a rise in the number of complaints received by the OIA, research by Bull & Page (2022) indicates that the OIA receive relatively few complaints relating to sexual misconduct due to students only being able to go through the OIA if they have first exhausted their university’s processes. Due to the complicated/difficult nature of many university’s reporting systems, and a lack of understanding of how to report incidents, many students struggle to get complaints through their own university, let alone to the OIA.

(iv) An estimated £87 million of university money was spent on NDAs between 2017 and 2019, with approximately a third of universities thought to have used NDA’s in relation to student complaints of sexual violence. This prompted the Department for Education (2022) campaign against the use of NDAs by universities in sexual violence cases. Despite Government support, approximately two thirds of universities have not signed the pledge. This currently includes the University of Bath, where they are ‘very supportive of this pledge’ and the University Executive Board are reviewing a proposal to sign up to it. For those universities that do not sign, however, the clear message is that their priority is to protect their own reputation, before protecting their students.


The 2021 Reclaim report recommended that:

  • universities should have a specific, clear, intersectional policy for sexual violence;
  • reporting procedures should be clear and easy; and
  • professional independent advice and counselling staff should be commissioned to support victim-survivors.

We echo these recommendations but want to push them further. To effectively address sexual violence at university there needs to be a whole university approach. This means that the issues related to sexual violence, from causation, through to intervention with offending, through to treatment of victim-survivors, all need to be addresses consistently, continuously, and simultaneously. This means there not only needs to be clear policies and processes, and accessible victim-survivor support, there also needs to be:

  • mandatory (including regular refresher) bystander training (delivered for long enough, e.g., in eight 60-90 minute facilitated sessions) for all staff and students;
  • mandatory education on institutional policies and reporting procedures and on how to effectively support victim-survivor, for all staff and students;
  • accessible university funded victim-survivor support, linked to key organisations such as SARCs and Rape Crisis, and specialist services for LGBTQi+, disabled people, ethnic, religious and language minority groups and male victim-survivors;
  • substantial long-term commitment and funding for interventions and support.

To achieve this, the Government needs to make such a whole university approach mandatory.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

If you would like to speak to someone or seek confidential support in relation to any of the issues raised in this blog, please see the following services: 

Local services:

  • Student Services Advice Line: 01225 384321 (The University of Bath now commissions counselling through The Bridge, so this should reduce your waiting time if you are a student access through Student Services)
  • The Bridge (Help after rape and sexual assault) SARC open 24/7 for men and women: 0117 342 6999
  • Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (SARSAS): (Helpline times vary, see website for details) 0808 801 0456 (women) 0808 801 0464 (men) http://www.sarsas.org.uk/

National services:

Posted in: Education, Evidence and policymaking, Health, Law, law enforcement and crime, Public services


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  • interesting and well written