Talking leadership 39: Cara Aitchison on sexual assault on campus

A cultural shift is needed, according to the vice-chancellor of Cardiff Met

August 30, 2022
Cara Aitchison

Cara Aitchison is determined to tackle sexual misconduct on campus. After a series of student spikings in the UK last year, and the rise of campaigns such as the website Everyone’s Invited, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University sat down with Times Higher Education to explain how she’s tackling one of the darkest aspects of university life.

For Aitchison, it is high time for a shift in culture when it comes to sexual harassment on campus. While higher education used to lead the pack on social equality, now “many areas of industry catch up and overtake [the sector],” she says. Twenty years ago, “universities were often thought of as being at the forefront, pushing the boundaries and being radical innovators,” she says. “In many ways, we still are...but we’ve seen many areas of industry and business become much more innovative, much more successful, in terms of the equality agenda.”

One of Aitchison’s tactics to improve the culture has been leading on the production of a guide to tackling staff-to-student sexual misconduct for Universities UK. It includes a definition of sexual misconduct and suggests universities make changes in four areas of culture, policy, practice and data.

Part of the aim for Aitchison was to unite “fragmented voices across the sector,” on sexual harassment. The guide still needs to be translated into operational manuals, but it is a start, she says. “The most important thing was changing the culture. And it maybe hasn’t changed, but it is changing.”

Staff-student relationships

One aspect of the guide that caused controversy and invoked pushback is that it doesn’t ban staff-student relationships outright (it “strongly discourages” them).

Aitchison says it is a murky area, giving an example of two PhD students in a relationship, and one of them picking up some teaching work and officially becoming a member of staff.

Some people were hoping for an outright ban but following legal guidance it was decided against.

She hopes the guide will enable more vice-chancellors and presidents to lead the culture change from the top. “I actually think leadership has been much more proactive over the last decade than previous decades. Previously, we might have seen some of that push for change coming from students. In more recent years, we’ve actually seen some of it also coming from the leadership within universities.”

At Cardiff Met, which Aitchison has led since 2016, prior to which she ran Plymouth Marjon University from 2013, she has implemented several initiatives, such as employing a director of student services who also sits on the board of Welsh Women’s Aid. This year, she launched a joint mental health universities liaison service with the NHS, which provides students with a means to be assessed, referred and guided through NHS services, while keeping the university involved in support.

She’s also co-opted Cardiff Met sports teams, having them contribute to the Students’ Union’s campaign, #NotAnExcuse. Many male members spoke up on camera about how there is never an excuse to sexually harass – as did Aitchison herself.

She knows that “everyone needs to be signed up” to tackling sexual misconduct – actively calling things out, which is “probably the most difficult [part]”. “We’re only ever as good as our weakest link,” she adds.

Data collection

Some argue that to really tackle the problem of sexual misconduct, universities should publish data on reported incidents. Perhaps surprisingly, Aitchison doesn’t necessarily agree.

“Say, for example, we had one university that was better at encouraging students to report, versus another university – and we’ve all seen them – that was quite content to sweep these things under the carpet,” Aitchison says. “If we had reporting, the first university, which probably has better practice, would look worse than the second. So it’s a question of how we would do this in a way that’s meaningful.

“Collecting the data would have to serve a purpose – a continual changing of the culture.” All in all, her worry is “inadvertently shining the spotlight in the wrong places”.

Non-disclosure agreements

The use of non-disclosure agreements [NDAs] to silence victims of abuse is one of the more egregious elements of misconduct on campus.

After the MeToo movement revealed the extent to which these legal contracts are used to gag victims, in 2020 a BBC investigation found that nearly a third of UK universities had used NDAs to resolve student complaints of sexual assault, bullying and poor teaching.

At the beginning of this year, then university minister Michelle Donelan urged all universities to sign a pledge that victims of sexual harassment in universities should no longer be silenced by NDAs. Cardiff Met signed the pledge, which Aitchison describes as a “helpful catalyst,” but she also criticises government edicts. Universities “should be trusted to run [our] own affairs,” she says.
Every university in Wales signed Donelan’s pledge, but of the 164 universities in the rest of the UK, only 67 have signed up at latest count.

Aitchison says that there are “slightly different interpretations” of how to deal with sexual misconduct among university leaders, but “there is not an unwillingness to tackle some of these issues.” It “takes courage” to address sexual misconduct, she continues.

Everyone’s Invited

In June 2020, amid various other social movements such as Blackout Tuesday and Covid lockdown protests, a new website called Everyone’s Invited was launched in the UK, intended to “expose and eradicate rape culture”. Serving as a platform for survivors to anonymously share their stories, it grew to include a “schools and universities list”, where individuals can submit institutions at which they allege sexual misconduct to have taken place, without delving into detail. The scheme, updated this year, is designed to “emphasise that rape culture exists everywhere”. Unlike other Welsh institutions, Cardiff Met doesn’t appear.

While this appears positive, it’s insufficient for Aitchison, who says it doesn’t prove anything. Even if there were fewer cases at Cardiff Met, that “wouldn’t, in my mind, diminish the problem,” she explains. “If one student suffers sexual misconduct by a member of staff, that is a problem, and all I need to know.”

Quick facts

Born: Falkirk, Scotland in 1965

Academic qualifications: MA (Hons) in Geography from the University of Edinburgh; Postgraduate Diploma in Recreation and Leisure Practice from Moray House College of Education; PGCE from Thames Polytechnic; MA in Gender and Society from Middlesex University London; and PhD in Social Science from the University of Bristol

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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