Staff-to-student sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in higher education

This weekend, along with colleagues, I’m finishing off two submissions to the government taskforce on sexual violence in universities. The taskforce was set up in September 2015 and is due to report back in September 2016. Both of these submissions are on staff sexual harassment of students, rather than the student-to-student sexual violence which was the initial remit of the taskforce. One of these is a co-authored submission through the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, following on from the conference we organised in December 2015 on staff harassment of students. The conference felt like a moment of breaking the silence, against the usual pattern of ‘missing women’, as Sara Ahmed described it: graduate students (usually women) experiencing harassment or inappropriate sexual behaviour from supervisors, getting ignored or fobbed off if they complain to the university, then quietly dropping out, with no institutional recognition or recording of the reason why they dropped out. The talks from the conference are very much worth reading.

The second submission is on staff-to-student sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in tertiary music education, particularly conservatoires. The high level of sexual exploitation and abuse in elite music education has come to light since 2013. Media attention has particularly focused on abuse at specialist music schools, but many of these teachers also taught at conservatoires and there have been trials and convictions for some very serious cases of sexual violence (eg here, here, and here, TW for descriptions of sexual violence). Recent convictions of music teachers have been for historic cases of sexual violence, and the music eduction sector is currently working to address these issues. With colleagues Ian Pace and Geoff Baker I am organising events to discuss ways to address these issues, and I hope that the government taskforce on sexual violence will help to push this issue up the agenda.

Despite the sea-change in levels of awareness and discussion of sexual abuse and sexual violence since revelations about Jimmy Savile in 2012, higher education institutions still have low levels of knowledge about how to address this issue and often only tackle it when it becomes public and threatens their reputation. Recently, I heard from a colleague who works at a chronically underfunded sexual violence charity that she had been asked to deliver training for senior staff at one of the richest higher education institutions in the country. When she asked for a fee for delivering the training, they replied ‘we’ll see if we can make a donation’. So while it might seem like good news that they are training their senior staff, it is outrageous that they are expecting this training to be delivered for free. This indicates that sexual violence prevention is still not seen as important enough to put money into, even for institutions that have money. Similarly, these submissions to the government taskforce are written with voluntary labour by myself and colleagues.

One of the issues that has come up in writing these submissions is the lack of data available on prevalence of staff-to-student sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation. The US are a long way ahead of the UK on this, thanks to Title IX which prohibits sex discrimination in education. (In the UK, there is a more complicated legal framework which draws on the Public Sector Equality Duty and the Human Rights Act.) A massive recent study from the US surveying over 150,000 students from 27 universities found that one in six female graduate students (15.8%) had experienced sexual harassment from an advisor, teacher or supervisor. There is no comparable research in the UK. The most recent study appears to be a qualitative study from Pam Carter and Tony Jeffs from 1995. So, not surprisingly, one of our recommendations for the government taskforce is more research in this area, along with suggestions for more robust policies and procedures in this area, and incorporating specific issues around staff-to-student harassment into training being delivered to staff and students in higher education.

So, watch this space in September this year to see what the taskforce recommends. Then, the long battle to try to get higher education institutions to implement change.

Staff-to-student sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in higher education

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