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Sexual misconduct at Universities

Illustration by Mari Kanstad Johnson

Illustration by Mari Kanstad Johnson

New FOI surveys find ongoing problems with data collection and complaint recording process

By David Batty and Elena Cherubini

Since the Guardian began an investigation into sexual harassment in universities, there has been growing criticism that many institutions remain complacent about the scale of the problem.

In late 2016, we sent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to more than 100 UK universities asking how many allegations and complaints they had received against staff. We found widespread inconsistencies in the way these incidents were handled and recorded, which reflected claims made by victims and campaigners that universities’ figures underestimate the scope of sexual misconduct.

For our latest story, we sent out two FoI surveys seeking figures on complaints against staff and students as well as staff suspensions, teaching bans, whether universities offered training on sexual consent and how they signposted access to support for victims of sexual misconduct.

Both FoIs asked for a total number of cases, though they were worded slightly differently. One asked for figures on all reported incidents, the other asked for the total number of all allegations, informal complaints and formal complaints.

The first FoI revealed that some universities hold figures on sexual misconduct reported to their counselling services as well as on formal complaints. While this data suggests the extent of sexual misconduct at universities may be higher than the number of formal complaints suggests, it is difficult to reach firm conclusions due to the way the data was recorded.

For example, the University of Derby recorded 33 complaints against staff and students over seven years. But if incidents disclosed to the counselling service are included this number rises to 196 – the second-highest number reported by the 131 universities surveyed. A spokesman said counsellors deal with current issues and historical cases. But the university was unable to specify how many of these cases had no connection to the university.

Taken together, the findings of the two FoI surveys also revealed further inconsistencies in the recording and disclosure of information about sexual misconduct. As many universities only record figures on formal complaints, the data they disclosed in response to both requests should have been nearly identical. 

However, this was not the case. Cross-checking the responses, we found many significant disparities in the answers we received. Usually, the reasons were clear: one response did not include either complaints against staff or students, or – for no apparent reason – data from some of the years requested had not been disclosed. But in a minority of cases, the universities concerned could not explain the disparities, and they are now conducting internal inquiries to try to understand this.

Furthermore, when we checked the responses to these two latest FoI surveys with our previous investigation into complaints against university staff, we noticed that several universities had disclosed lower numbers of these complaints than they did previously, or omitted those cases altogether. When challenged on this, several universities revised their figures, with the remainder still investigating the anomaly.

The Changing the Culture report of the Universities UK taskforce on violence against women, harassment and hate crime, published in October 2016, called for “an effective, centralised process for recording incidents, collecting data and regularly reviewing this data” within universities.

The report deemed that it was for individual institutions “to determine how to record this sensitive data”, but it added that “data collection and recording processes should be robust and consistent”.

Anna Bull, the co-founder of the 1752 Group, which advises universities about sexual misconduct, said the Guardian’s findings showed that the government and university leaders and regulators should “formulate more detailed guidelines as to what data universities should collect”.

She added: “It is not clear that any progress has been made towards the goal of institutional data collection and robust reporting. This is extremely concerning as it is an indication that senior leadership within higher education institutions are not taking sexual violence seriously.

“Rather than leaving this to individual institutions, we call for the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Universities UK and the Department for Education, along with the Office for Students, to coordinate robust and coherent data collection on sexual misconduct across the higher education sector.”