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From: The Socialist issue 1126, 24 March 2021: NHS crisis, mass sackings, violence against women... Protesting is not a crime

Search site for keywords: Sexual harassment - Students - University - Student - Education - Universities

Fighting sexual harassment and gender violence on campus

Protesters in York. Photo: Iain Dalton

Protesters in York. Photo: Iain Dalton   (Click to enlarge)

Bea Gardner, Socialist Students

Given the appalling rates of sexual harassment and violence on university, college and school campuses, it is no surprise that young women and students have been at the forefront of recent protests and vigils called in response to the murder of Sarah Everard.

A staggering 97% of young women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment. Many of these incidents will happen in education and learning settings.

A National Education Union survey found that 37% of girls at mixed-sex secondary schools have been sexually harassed at school. On university and college campuses the figure is as high as 70%, with most incidents taking place on campus or in halls of residence.

Instead of facing up to the scale of the problem, education managers and university bosses, like the Metropolitan Police, have tried to conceal the extent of sexual misconduct, including silencing those who speak out.

Over a third of universities have imposed 'gagging orders'- non-disclosure clauses designed to protect capitalist trade secrets - as part of the complaints process. Coventry University management recently threatened disciplinary action against staff whistleblowers for speaking to the press about the sexual misconduct of a senior academic staff member.

A recent report, Unsafe Spaces, found most universities do not even collect reliable information about reported incidents of sexual assault. Neither have they recruited trained specialists to support those affected, despite university management's own estimation that 15% of female undergraduates (50,000 students) experience sexual abuse each year.

In reality, this figure is far higher, given research from Brook - the youth advisory service - indicates as few as one in ten students report incidences to their university or the police.

We urgently need a trade union and student-led inquiry into the true extent of sexual harassment and violence on campuses, as well as in schools and colleges. The continued reluctance of the government or university bosses to conduct a widescale study is part of their attempt to conceal the issue and avoid taking responsibility.

There is a growing mood among young people and students that we should not have to endure or tolerate sexist and misogynistic behaviours on our campuses. This mood has already resulted in a significant increase in official complaints of sexual misconduct. In 2019, formal student complaints to universities of severe sexual assault had risen by 82% in just one year.

Outrageously though, just 2% of students who make formal complaints are satisfied with the reporting process. As long as these procedures are in management's hands, it is clear that reputation and cost-saving will be prioritised over staff and student welfare. The Unsafe Spaces report found university management chose not to take action in cases of staff-perpetrated sexual abuse due to the financial concerns of losing prestigious academics who bring income to the institution.

Instead of management-led working groups, which only give lip service to tackling sexual harassment, we need democratically organised working groups led by students, staff and specialist support services. Under joint trade union and student oversight, sexual harassment reporting procedures could be transformed.

The same committees could play a vital role in scrutinising implementation and ensuring policies are properly enforced in practice. Trade unions must be at the forefront of organising and campaigning for these demands, with training available to all union reps and staff.

Measures

Some of the practical measures we could implement to improve safety include: accessible and trusted campus wardens; chaperoned night transport; zero-tolerance policies in university facilities; adopting a community bystander training programme, giving anyone witnessing abusive or discriminatory behaviours the confidence to intervene or offer help.

Meanwhile, a considerable investment is needed to end the current crisis in student support which is a devastating consequence of universities' market model. Even during the current pandemic, with the enormous mental health crisis amongst students, universities have been cutting student support to reduce costs. We must oppose all cuts, austerity and privatisation, which is a political choice, not a necessity.

Personal tutors, often the first people students turn to, are overworked and often have no specialist training.

At the same time, specialist support services in the community have also been decimated by capitalist austerity. The result is students competing to access oversubscribed resources that are chronically underfunded, with substantial waiting lists.

While waiting for help, students are financially reliant on maintenance loan payments, so they stay enrolled, and fall behind or potentially fail years of study, becoming even more in debt. Education should be free, with students in receipt of living grants. Students should also be entitled to Universal Credit if they have had to suspend their studies.

The National Union of Students' (NUS) prevention strategy includes resources to educate students on consent, often in conjunction with university management.

Education and training are important; prejudices, gender stereotyping, and sexist behaviour should be challenged when we see them. However, it has now been over a decade since the first NUS report into sexual violence on UK university campuses, and if anything, the problem is getting worse.

The danger of the 'raising awareness' approach is it reduces the issue to an individual problem or behaviour. In reality, any individual's attitudes are shaped by the economic and social system we live in, capitalism. Systemic problems require systemic solutions; we need to challenge the root cause of sexist ideas by fundamentally transforming the capitalist institutions which continue to reproduce them, including the education system.

The last ten years have shown raising awareness is not enough: to challenge sexual harassment on campus, we need decisive, united action organised around a programme that includes demands against marketisation, fees and austerity. Recognising that university management cannot be trusted and organising collectively to fight for the resources needed plays a part in achieving these demands.

A united campaign of staff and students can fight to transform our campuses in our interests, delivering well-funded support services, non-exploitative housing and democratic complaints procedures as a result. Such a campaign would be a vital step toward overthrowing the institutions of capitalism, paving the way to destroy the root cause of oppression in society.

A student's experience

Rachel Gambling, Essex Socialist Party

Sexual harassment at university is often just an accepted norm.

There's the surface level stuff - street harassment, being told you have a nice bum by random middle-aged men that drive by in their cars, unwanted advances from guys on your course or in societies with you. Guys demanding that you dance with them even though you've already said no multiple times. Having your waist felt up by random men in clubs as they move past you. Everyone's familiar with that, so it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.

The more insidious instances are usually from guys you actually have an initial attraction to.

There are long-term mental health effects to this type of sexual abuse.

I personally ended up in a situation at a party. I still find myself unsure whether the incident actually qualifies as sexual abuse, since I was a willing participant. At least I was with the amount of alcohol I had in my body. But I wasn't in a position to give consent that night. I wouldn't want to go to the police about it - I don't want to have that event picked apart by people I've never met before.

I was left questioning my recollection of events for months because of a version of events I was given by the perpetrator. I think a lot of women at university end up in situations like these.

Sexual abuse on campuses goes hand-in-hand with psychological abuse so the men can avoid facing consequences for their actions.

With this comes a lot of emotional processing that young women aren't equipped to handle, what with a limited number of mental health resources on campus and an invasive reporting system, through both law enforcement and the universities themselves. They're left processing this information on their own most of the time, and with that comes a deep depression unique to those traumatised by such events.

University of Birmingham: Reclaiming Our Campus

You can't put a price tag on safety

Emily Griffin, Birmingham Socialist Students

On 17 March, Socialist Students at the University of Birmingham (UoB) stood in solidarity with the Reclaim Our Campus protest; a socially distanced vigil recounting the horrific abuse women and other marginalised genders face every day.

With a huge turnout of roughly 1,000 UoB students, we listened to impassioned speeches and testimonies of those who had suffered as a direct result of the university's sexist and capitalist ideals. With speeches lasting well over two hours, it was no surprise that the university has a long way to go to ensure the safety of its students.

Socialist Students stands wholeheartedly with this movement and demands immediate action to be taken by the University of Birmingham. As of the 16 March, there have been six reported cases of women students being forcibly pulled into cars and assaulted in and around the key student accommodation neighbourhood - all of which the university denied had happened.

And there are hundreds more cases of women being harassed, abused, and made to feel unsafe in their place of learning. Management has failed us.

In order for 'rape culture' and misogynistic attitudes on campus to be truly eliminated, the day-to-day running of the university has to be taken out of the hands of management. We need democratic trade union and student oversight of reporting procedures and the implementation of measures to help create zero tolerance of harassment and abuse on campus.

For too long the university has ignored survivors, facilitated 'rape culture', and consistently put profits above the safety of its students. We demand better funding and signposting for victim support services, a commitment of concrete action to be taken against perpetrators, and better lighting around campus and accommodation at night. You can't put a price tag on the safety of women students.

Socialist Students is fighting for:

  • Democratic oversight of sexual harassment reporting procedures by joint trade union and student-led committees, ensuring procedures are fully implemented
  • An end to 'gagging' nondisclosure agreements in cases of sexual assault
  • A trade union and student-led inquiry into the true extent of sexual harassment and violence on campuses, as well as in schools and colleges
  • Full government funding of support services, campus lighting, safe transport and non-exploitative, affordable housing. Scrap marketisation, fees and debt
  • Build a movement for free education - scrap fees and debt and introduce student living grants. Fight for full government funding to provide a safe and free education for all

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