Universities are reluctant to tackle sexual violence for fear of PR fallout

We have heard a lot lately about how UK universities have a problem with sexual violence. Nicole Westmarland, writing in the Telegraph on 20th January, cited a YouthSight poll which found that 1 in 3 female students had experienced sexual assault or unwanted advances, and described institutional inaction as a ‘national embarrassment’. My work with NUS, on the Hidden Marks and That’s What She Said reports, has revealed a high prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women students, framed by a ‘lad culture’ which is increasingly normalised.

This January, a group including eight cross-party MPs and representatives of NUS and Rape Crisis published a letter asking Universities UK to develop guidelines on how HEIs should respond to sexual assault. At present, according to NUS President Toni Pearce, the most common response at institutional level at is a ‘not on my campus’ style of passing the buck. There are a few exceptions – for example, Sussex has developed a care pathway for victims and training for ‘first responders’, and the University of the West of England has created The Intervention Initiative, an evidence-based bystander education programme which can be embedded in the curriculum. But by and large, action on these issues is left to academics and students’ unions.

One reason for this is that developing policies and interventions on sexual violence is both time- and resource-intensive. Another reason, however, is that sexual violence at universities is seen primarily as a public relations issue. Institutions do not want prospective students and their parents, or potential donors, to be put off by stories about sexual victimisation, especially that occurring on campus. Furthermore, they are loath to take action in case by doing so they create the impression that their campus is worse than elsewhere.

Sexual assault is an issue of equality and social justice and this should trump any concern with public appearances. Moreover, the End Violence Against Women Coalition have advised that universities may be avoiding their responsibilities under the Human Rights Act and Public Sector Equality Duty by refusing to investigate sexual assault allegations. But if we entertain the neoliberal mindset for a moment, it’s also possible that we can turn the public relations argument on its head.

The problem of sexual violence against students is going to persist and has now achieved a high profile in the media. If they are not already, prospective students and their parents will soon be asking questions at open days, wanting to know if the university environment is safe and what support is in place if the worst should happen. There is now a general awareness that ‘lad culture’ and sexual assault affect all universities in the UK. Surely, it now looks better for HEIs to show they are doing something rather than sweeping the matter under the carpet.

Thinking more broadly, there is also a market argument for demonstrating that the values operating on our campuses are not just economic. My daughter will soon start primary school – and the values surrounding her education, such as respect, equality, trust and courage, make HE buzzwords ‘excellence’, ‘ambition’ and ‘enterprise’ seem rather blank. Of course, we are not running primary schools – but we are managing communities of bright young people in what has become a rather nihilistic setting. And although some universities do aspire to civic values, the prevalence of sexual violence and lack of institutional response suggest that these cannot be fully operational.

Continuing the market argument, augmenting economic values with civic ones in the HE sector would be an effective way for universities to develop their distinctive brand identities. Marketers and creatives advise that tapping into people’s feelings is key to branding – brand values need to be relatable (and commercial buzzwords are not). Refining the current set of economic generalities might also provide a basis on which universities could showcase their particular strengths.

For most universities, their biggest selling point will be their students. Ours at Sussex are political, feisty and fun – whether occupying lecture theatres in dispute with the management or staging ‘kiss-ins’ at Sainsburys to protest against homophobia, they are our best brand ambassadors. Sixth formers across the country and abroad can look at these bright, engaging young people and get an immediate impression of what Sussex is all about.

A set of civic values grounded in the unique character of each student community would be helpful in preventing violence, creating behavioural expectations and providing a basis on which universities could take action. The value of establishing such norms for conduct was recognised in 2011 by the Student Charter Report, which recommended that every HEI should have and publish a charter. However, although many universities do have such documents, the persistence of sexual violence shows that they are not going far enough in terms of embedding rights, responsibilities and community ideals. Soon, this will disadvantage them in market as well as moral terms.

Originally published in The Guardian

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Author: alisonphipps

Academic working on issues in the politics of the body - sexual violence, sex work, reproductive justice. Feminist; queer; Prince.

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