‘One in five’ female students in UK is victim of sexual assault

Ethnic minority students twice as likely to be assaulted in teaching space as white classmates

November 26, 2020
Women's March on London. Banner reading 'My body my choice'.
Source: Alamy

One in five female students in the UK has been the victim of sexual assault while at university, and a quarter have experienced sexual harassment, according to a study.

The survey, carried out by market research firm Trendance for Empowered Campus, an organisation that works with universities to support survivors on campus and to create better institutional policies and training, found that more than half of the students who said they were victims of assault or harassment had experienced it on campus.

The survey of 8,106 higher education students from 124 UK universities found that 12.3 per cent of cases occurred in halls of residence.

According to the report, while progress had been made in alerting students to the availability of support structures, this was not translating into disclosures to university support departments. Of those female students surveyed who were not victims, 43 per cent said they would go to university support services if they were sexually assaulted, but only 3 per cent of those who had experienced an assault actually contacted support services.

Of the male students who were victims of sexual assault, 71 per cent dealt with it entirely alone, the results showed.

The report also found that students who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were 15.1 per cent more likely to experience sexual harassment, while disabled students were 11.8 per cent more likely to experience harassment.

According to the survey, black and minority ethnic students are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted in a classroom, lecture room or laboratory compared with their white peers, while white students reported being sexually assaulted in the students’ union at twice the rate of BAME students.

Martha Jephcott, the co-founder of Empowered Campus, who conducted the research, said there had been improvements on campuses in the past decade.

However, victims “face a lottery depending on where they attend and who they disclose to”, she said. Many institutions lacked proper policies, pathways or training to deal with survivors, leaving many of them even more traumatised, she said.

Ms Jephcott noted that, according to the 2010 National Union of Students report Hidden Marks, one in seven female students reported experiencing physical or sexual assault. While the increase seen in the Empowered Campus survey could be attributed to more students feeling able to report assault, it showed that “there is still so much more to do”, she said.

According to Ms Jephcott’s research, plagiarism policies are often longer and more comprehensive than the sexual harassment policies at UK universities, with approaches to this work seen as a tick-box exercise.

“You do have pockets of really great work, but without pulling it together and recognising that students don't all have the same experiences, students will slip through the net,” she said.

The report recommends that universities clearly link policy, care pathways and improved training, as well as taking a survivor-centred approach.

The coronavirus pandemic has made the work “even more urgent”, according to Ms Jephcott. She said that with restrictions trapping students in halls, she expected a sharp rise in cases while access to support services was reduced. “Prevention and support must be a priority,” she said.


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