Content warning: This article discusses difficult topics, including sexual assault and harassment.
Last week, the master of Trinity Hall, Dr Jeremy Morris, resigned. Eighteen months earlier, in February 2020, Morris had stepped back from his role to make way for an independent review into the Cambridge college’s handling of sexual assault and harrasment allegations.
Trinity Hall commissioned the inquiry, led by Gemma White, a senior barrister, following an extensive investigation by my colleague Chris Cook and me, which uncovered a series of catastrophically mismanaged sexual misconduct complaints at the college. The resulting inquiry report recommended that Morris face disciplinary action over his handling of one of those complaints. Morris disputes the report’s findings.
The report’s recommendation – and Morris’s resignation – are significant for the education sector. It is the first time that someone of such seniority has been held publicly accountable for these kinds of failings; failings that are almost routine in UK higher education institutions.
That there has been some accountability in this case may be an early sign of a shift underway – that universities cannot continue to fail their students in this regard without consequences. In the year and a half since we published the Trinity Hall story, universities, colleges and schools have all been reckoning with sexual assault and harrassment in ways they never did before. This generation of students are speaking up about their experiences and demanding better from the institutions meant to protect them.
In the summer of 2020, St Andrews Survivors, an Instagram page, posted hundreds of accounts of rape, assault, stalking and domestic abuse submitted by students. Everyone’s Invited, an online movement calling for pupils and students to disclose anonymous testimony about their experiences of harassment, assault and image-based abuse, launched in the spring of this year and quickly became an online phenomenon. Within a month, the site had collected a grim catalogue of 40,000 stories from 600 schools. At the time of writing, no fewer than 119 universities have also been named on the site.
Alongside their accounts of sexual assault and harassment, students on those pages described what it was like to report their experiences to their schools and universities. Often, they were rewarded with inaction, if not outright incompetence. The recently launched Campaign for Accountability in Education is seeking to address this issue head on: it is asking students and alumni to petition their universities to create better policies and procedures for investigating sexual assault complaints. There are currently petitions active at 85 different universities.
These three campaigns highlight two important things. First, that the proper management of sexual misconduct complaints is not a problem for a single college or a single university. Sexual assault is a reality at all 165 higher education institutions in the UK. Statistics from the Crime Survey for England and Wales show that eight per cent of full-time students and 11 per cent of female full-time students experienced sexual assault in the last year, more than any other occupational group whether employed or unemployed. And, second, that to protect students from further distress and harm after sexual assault, universities need to have robust reporting and safeguarding policies in place – and they need to put them into practice.
From the beginning, our reporting has been informed by those two realities. In the first installment of our investigations into campus justice, we reported not only on the specific procedural failures at Trinity Hall (and the institutional culture underlying them) but also on the broader problems created by bad policy across UK campuses. We analysed sexual misconduct reporting and disciplinary procedures from the country’s 60 largest universities by size of student population – and what we found was disturbing.
Few universities have procedures specifically designed to manage complaints of sexual harassment and assault, many of them use catch-all bullying and harassment policies and disciplinary procedures to handle cases brought against students and staff. The results are predictably bad: some procedures recommend that students try to resolve harassment complaints informally at first, as if to block them from escalating the matter until they have tried approaching their harasser directly.
Often there are strict time limits for those raising complaints, sometimes giving victims only days or weeks after an incident to come forward. At some universities, only incidents that happen on campus can be investigated, a rule that immediately rules out many cases.
When we returned to the subject earlier this year the themes were the same. Our investigation into a devastatingly mishandled case at Queens’ College, Cambridge revealed the extreme psychological distress endured by students whose cases are managed poorly, while our reporting on Oxford showed how inconsistently different institutions within a single university can treat sexual assault and harrassment complaints.
All of these stories are fundamentally about policy, process and procedure and how it can fail. Sometimes, imperfect procedures are to blame for cases gone awry. In other instances it’s the application that is haphazard because policies are administered by academics with no training in sexual assault or conflicts of interest that frustrate matters. In some instances, the rule book appears to be thrown out altogether and institutions improvise solutions with disastrous results.
What we have consistently heard from students who have been through these processes is that they are left feeling – at the very least – dissatisfied, without any sense of resolution or justice. More often than not, they are actively distressed by what they have experienced. Woman A, one of the students who reported allegations of sexual assault to Trinity Hall wrote: “The entire process was traumatic – I was patronised, gaslit and denied access to crucial information about my complaint. Looking back, I feel incredibly naive for trusting the College leadership. Trinity Hall is not interested in protecting its students, only in servicing its own reputation – I cannot confidently say that any student or member of staff there is adequately safeguarded.”
In the past, universities have dodged their responsibility properly to address sexual misconduct on campus. Institutions saw taking on cases as a liability and feared that commissioning and announcing new policies would highlight the problem of sexual assault on campus and cause PR problems or student recruitment issues.
By now, the liability ought to run in the other direction: universities that are failing to handle cases appropriately will be the ones with the PR problem. In time, universities failing to act may also face penalties from the Office for Students (OfS), England’s higher education regulator.
Earlier this year the OfS issued a statement of expectations urging universities to develop policies to prevent sexual harassment and assault and procedures to properly investigate incidents. These “expectations” do not yet have actionable regulatory force. But Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the OfS, told a Tortoise ThinkIn in April that the body is considering whether to link these standards to their conditions of registration, with the possibility of sanctions or fines if they fail to comply.
The biggest indicator that an institution takes sexual violence and harrassment seriously is that its leadership thinks carefully about policy, is transparent about how cases are handled and hires trained professionals to work with victims of sexual assault who come forward.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, the following organisations may be able to provide help and advice:
Rape Crisis UK: 0808 802 9999. The helpline is open 12am-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm. You can use the helpline to speak to a trained worker, who can also tell you about services available near you if you would like access to support and counselling. Or visit rapecrisis.org.uk
NHS Direct – Help after Rape and Sexual Assault:
This page gives advice about the help available after someone has been sexually assaulted.
NSPCC Report Abuse in Education Helpline: 0800 136 663 this line is open Monday to Friday 8am-10pm, or 9am-6pm at the weekends or email firstname.lastname@example.org