UCU: sexual harassment rife as UK universities ‘protect predators’

Star professors who abuse their positions escape censure because universities fear hit to reputations and funding, says union report

December 22, 2021
Source: iStock

The reluctance of UK universities to confront leading researchers has contributed to “endemic” levels of sexual violence in higher education, a major study has claimed.

Drawing on survey responses from almost 4,000 university staff, a long-awaited report by the University and College Union (UCU) published on 22 December says encounters with sexual violence are “commonplace” within universities and colleges. One in 10 of respondents said that they had directly experienced sexual harassment or abuse within the past five years, yet half of them did not report it to their employers.

Almost a quarter of respondents (24 per cent) said they had witnessed sexual violence on campus – including, under the definition used, unwanted sexual advances, derogatory or sexually suggestive comments and the sharing of sexualised materials, as well as sexual assault and rape. The most serious forms of sexual assault are “part of a continuum of sexual violence”, explains the report, as “seemingly small and innocuous acts can set the scene for physical assaults”.

A lack of “organisational readiness” to sanction perpetrators is identified by the report, and this often had its roots in an unwillingness to investigate or discipline “star professors” who attract large amounts of research funding, or for whom disciplinary procedures would lead to reputational damage for the university, said the UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady.

“Promising young women who have the potential for amazing research careers find these careers ruined by predatory male academics who are protected,” said Dr Grady, who added that these perpetrators “stay in roles and have the potential to terrorise a whole new load of people over the years”.

“The star academic is more valued by the institution than doing the right thing,” continued Dr Grady, who claimed that many institutions wanted to “protect star academics…as they give them a cachet that universities want to hang on to”.

An “obsession with [reputational] damage…is impacting on how universities deal with this,” said Dr Grady, who condemned a “culture of protecting predators”.

The “big power differential” between permanent professors and staff on insecure contracts created the conditions for sexual harassment and abuse, she argued, noting that the report finds that staff on non-permanent contracts are 1.3 times more likely to experience sexual violence.

“Education does not have more predators [than other industries], but the employment conditions that we see are exacerbating this problem,” said Dr Grady, who said precarious academics see that the “very structure of the university conveys to them that they are not as important as other staff”.

A Universities UK spokeswoman said the UCU report and its findings "make for difficult but important reading" and that "every case of sexual violence on campus is one too many and completely unacceptable."

"University senior management take these matters extremely seriously and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study so that no student or member of staff is subject to any form of sexual violence or misconduct," she added.

This month UUK published a toolkit for senior leaders of best practice and practical steps to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment, created in partnership with the charity Against Violence and Abuse and the National Union of Students.

"While progress has been made, including in encouraging survivors to come forward and report, we know – and this report further emphasises – that there is much more to do to end all forms of harassment in higher education. UUK will continue to intensify its work with the sector, including the UCU, to examine what further action we can all collectively take," said UUK.

The report sets out a number of recommendations, such as abandoning the use of non-disclosure agreements for survivors of sexual violence and communicating the outcomes of complaints to survivors, but it also acknowledges that the UCU’s own practices have fallen short and calls on the union to change the way it addresses the issue of sexual violence.

Respondents reported access to support being blocked by local UCU branches or inconsistent levels of support being made available when a complaint was made. While some of those surveyed valued the support of their UCU rep, others reported that despite their willingness to help, UCU reps were not properly trained or lacked the capacity to provide appropriate support.

The union has already begun a review into its own process for members reporting sexual violence. The review, which is due to conclude in January, will be followed by recommendations on how the union can improve its procedures.

Lesley McMillan, who chaired the study’s 13-strong task force, said that the report “demonstrates the widespread and enduring nature of sexual violence in the workplace”.

“The sector is waking up to the problem – it is now vital that employers and unions work together to create a university and college sector that is inclusive and safe, prevents these harms from occurring, and offers support and redress when they do,” said Professor McMillan.


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Reader's comments (5)

Excellent study about 'UCU: sexual harassment rife as UK universities ‘protect predators’ but i would like to see similar study done on undergraduate students to i.e. being subjected to sexual harassment, sexual jocks but also if they offered sexual favours to staff in return for passes.
If a student did that, surely the problem is easily solved: the staff member says 'no'.
Surely this shows that universities don't actually view sexual harassment as wrong. This is like the Catholic Church sweeping criminal abuse under the carpet. If they wanted to fix it, they would.
Academic staff are effectively issued with a licence to sleep with students by their employers. Formal policies and guidance exist in many institutions for staff who engage in sexual relations with students, who can obviously be aged from 18 upwards. It is not forbidden and is not outlawed as long as it is ‘consensual’. But obviously you are into the realms of abuse of authority, conflicting personal interests and an accepted culture that can easily lead to predatory behaviour. There is no obvious monitoring or oversight and massive moral questions prevail. In an education setting it could be argued that it is totally inappropriate and unprofessional and might lead to a culture where teaching and education are frustrated by ulterior motives or misguided actions. Grooming is not beyond the bounds of belief. So arguably this is quite easy to stop and remove a lot of the confusion regarding behaviours in work.
Sexual violence and sexual harassment on and off campus is academia’s nasty ‘open secret’. There are a number of men, mostly senior academics, who for years have been protected by colleagues, male and female, who, knowing full well that abuse is taking place refuse to act. This is not out of fear, people collude because it suits them to do so. And as a union, UCU has failed, and continues to fail to support members who report SV/SH. The “long awaited” report on which this article is based doesn’t tell us anything new, what academia needs is action.