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NUS finds ‘startling’ lack of sexual harassment policies on campuses

An analysis by the National Union of Students of policies to address sexual violence, harassment and “lad culture” on campuses has found a “startling lack” of provision, training and support across institutions and student unions.

The audit of 35 institutions and student unions, published on Monday, found that while most had equality and diversity, bullying and harassment policies, “many were ill-defined, often not relevant to lad culture and at times unclear on what is meant by sexual harassment and assault”.

The NUS report follows a Guardian investigation which found student survivors of alleged sexual violence reported poor advice and guidance, and felt let down by their institutions when they sought help.

Only 51%of the institutions had a formal policy on sexual harassment and only one in 10 had a policy that covered the display of sexist and discriminatory material, the NUS report said.

It found complaints and disciplinary procedures were inappropriate and unsuitable for victims of sexual harassment and assault, with many putting the onus on victims to try to resolve matters informally first by talking to the perpetrator.

The audit follows the NUS Hidden Marks study in 2010, which showed that one in seven female students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault and 68% were victims of one or more kinds of sexual harassment on campus. Other NUS research on lad culture has shown that 37% of female students have faced unwelcome sexual advances during their university studies, while more than 60% of students have heard rape jokes on campus.

The NUS lad culture audit, conducted between December 2014 and February 2015, was based on responses from 35 institutions and 20 student unions. It found student unions to have more policies relevant to lad culture than higher education institutions. For instance, more unions were reported to have a policy on sexual harassment (65%) than institutions (51%). They were much more likely to have a policy on the display of sexist and discriminatory material (48%, compared with only 11% of institutions). However, it said that both failed to promote such policies.

Susuana Amoah, the NUS women’s officer, said: “We, the student movement and society as a whole, are no longer in a position where we can continue to allow the issues women face on campuses across the UK and beyond to be ignored.

“Yes, women can participate in education, work and social activities, but that doesn’t mean that these spaces are accessible to all women or that women are treated fairly and respectfully. In fact, harassment, violence and blatant discrimination can make education and other spaces inaccessible for many students, not just women.”

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The audit called on the education community to support the NUS’s call for a national framework to properly tackle lad culture, defined as a group or pack mentality prevalent in sporting activities or heavy alcohol use, which is often sexist, misogynistic or homophobic. At its extreme, the report said, lad culture was believed to promote rape-supportive attitudes, sexual harassment and violence.

Alison Phipps, director of the centre for gender studies at the University of Sussex, said: “The NUS has been breaking new ground in developing and supporting initiatives to address lad culture and sexual violence against students.

“This audit has been a fantastic tool in helping students’ unions to understand these problems, how they are being dealt with on their campuses and what more needs to be done. I am full of admiration for individuals and students’ unions who are tackling the issues, sometimes in very unsupportive institutional contexts.

“I hope that Universities UK and other relevant organisations will meet us in our efforts, specifically through pressuring more universities to take action at institutional levels.”

The NUS report found that, when institutions suggested informal resolution of harassment, the policies were not explicit about where it would be inappropriate, such as in cases of serious sexual assault and violence. There was also an absence of information on what to do if someone reports sexual harassment and violence, and how the complainant might need to be treated differently with particular support processes in place.

It found that fewer than half of student unions (47%) reported their institution had a clear reporting procedure for sexual violence and only 41% said they had a third-party crime reporting process in place.

The report recommended that Universities UK and other relevant organisations work to develop national guidance to tackle the problem of lad culture, sexual violence and harassment. Other recommendations include ensuring a clear definition of sexual harassment, identifying a first point of contact to report an incident and supplying information on further points of contact including signposting to police and specialist services. It also suggest that universities organise support groups.


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