Performing arts students ‘scared to report abuse’

Survey reveals widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and bullying in UK specialist institutions

July 19, 2018
A hand on a theatre curtain
Source: Getty

A survey has revealed the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour, bullying and discrimination in UK higher education institutions specialising in the performing arts, and students’ fears that they will not be taken seriously if they report misconduct.

The survey – published on 19 July and conducted by the Equity union, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the Musicians’ Union – aimed to discover whether the sexual misconduct crisis in the creative industries exposed by the #MeToo movement had its roots in the colleges that feed into the sector.

Of 600 students at specialist drama schools, music colleges, conservatoires, dance colleges and universities who submitted a response, 51 per cent said that they had experienced sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour, bullying or discrimination. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of these were women, while 18 per cent were men.

Respondents who said that they had experienced misconduct were able to select more than one option to describe their experiences, and many did: 57 per cent reported inappropriate behaviour, 42 per cent cited bullying, 36 per cent specified gender discrimination, and 27 per cent said that they were victims of sexual harassment.

While 58 per cent of respondents said that they had been involved in a case in which a fellow student was the alleged perpetrator, 42 per cent accused members of permanent teaching staff of wrongdoing.

Significantly, however, more than half (57 per cent) of respondents said that they had not reported their concerns to their institution. Only 13 per cent had reported all the cases that they had been involved in, with 24 per cent stating that they made reports in some cases but not in others.

When those who had not reported their concerns were asked why, 54 per cent of respondents said that they felt at risk of not being believed or taken seriously, 47 per cent feared damage to their reputation, and the same proportion felt that their complaint might not be handled appropriately.

Forty-five per cent of respondents said that the behaviour they experienced “seems to be culturally acceptable” in their institution, and this was backed up by students’ comments.

“Everyone already knew. He was notorious for it,” one student said. “I had mentioned it to several members of staff who said: ‘It is just his age, he really does care about his students and sometimes you just need to laugh things off,’” another student reported.

Of students who had reported their concerns, students were more likely to be dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation (48 per cent) than satisfied (43 per cent).

“My treatment worsened because [the perpetrator] knew I had complained about [them],” one student said. Another complained: “Several lecturers colluded and made my life hell.”

The organisations that conducted the survey said that institutions should consider introducing a safeguarding model similar to that operated for under-18s, including naming a designated pastoral officer for students to report concerns to. The idea of anonymous reporting should also be considered, the organisations said.

“Although many higher education institutions are doing good work to ensure the safety of their students, it is clear that there are several issues that must be addressed and taken seriously,” said Christine Payne, Equity’s general secretary. “This report clearly demonstrates a culture of fear that is preventing students from reporting abuse. This is unacceptable, and our solutions, as set out in the report, must be considered.”

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