It’s Freshers’ week in Cambridge. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first-years pile into hallowed halls, timetables crammed with workshops, seminars and pub crawls. Consent workshops occupy a 45-minute slot on a Thursday afternoon. Names are called out with no reply, and some dozen seats remain empty.

A chair scrapes the floor. Someone heart-heartedly gets to their feet and calls out: “Rape alarms are available at porters lodge”. An after-thought. An unlikely prospect perhaps. In reality, the odds are bleak. A defence lawyer reveals to me that the vast majority of sexual assault cases at university happen during Freshers’ week. For those involved, it’s usually their first sexual encounter of their lives.

A 2018 survey estimated that 62% of students have experienced sexual violence at a UK university. Out of these, only 6% reported the matter to the university. Anecdotally, I suspect the figure here is something similar, if not significantly higher. Universities up and down the country are struggling to cope with the growing epidemic of sexual assault cases. Student conduct boards act as the plaster to this problem: panels of academics, investigators and student representatives that deliberate whether a student has broken the university’s code of conduct. Their remit covers everything from plagiarism to cases of sexual assault, violence and harassment.

With rape convictions at a record-low, and police investigations sometimes taking several years, it’s easy to understand why universities take matters into their own hands, aiming to complete the investigation within a matter of months. But to what extent are student conduct boards equipped to be carrying out investigations into increasingly complex cases? After all, investigating a case of sexual assault is rarely simple. It becomes even harder when these boards lack the power to demand evidence and the forensic facilities the police use.

Since May of last year, I’ve been investigating the use of student conduct boards at Cambridge and beyond, speaking to students, policymakers and lawyers. In this piece, I combine testimonies from three victims of sexual assault, and make reference to many more. Some have reported through Cambridge University’s conduct board (OSCCA), others through their college and some are yet to report their case.

“He said, she said”

Daisy had only been at university for a day when she was sexually assaulted. At first, she wasn’t sure whether it “even counted” as assault. She’d met him at a house party that evening. He was a “a nice person” she admits, and they’d spent the evening chatting together. But, she wasn’t ready to sleep with him. That night, he followed her back to her room. She can only remember flashes of the evening, like the click of the lock as he closed her bedroom door behind him. She certainly doesn’t remember consenting to sex.

In the morning, she had an uneasy feeling about the night, but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Her friends dissuaded her from overthinking it, reminding her she was drunk, and it was probably nothing. “After all...” they said, “it’s a ‘he said, she said’ situation”.

The trauma from that evening didn’t leave Daisy. Soon, she found herself at her lowest point, resorting to drinking excessively, doing so at 9am before her lectures. She’d often pass out on her bathroom floor. Her friends became so concerned they made a rota to keep an eye on her.

Twice, Daisy tried to take her own life.

In the end, she failed her first-year exams. Her college threatened to make her leave. Eventually, she sent her college an account of everything that had happened. After putting up a fight, they eventually let her continue her studies. “No one ever said anything about reporting” she adds. Only in the past month, two years after she was first assaulted, she’s learnt that the reporting system even exists.

“Two years after she was first assaulted, she’s learnt that the reporting system even exists”

Even now, she’s sceptical as to what it can achieve. She still sees him every now and then, and the trauma from the night clearly stays with her. She shakes her head, “it’s not gone”.

“Too little, too late”

When I met Ella on a rainy morning in May, she had just finished her exams, but little weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Last year, she was sexually assaulted on two occasions by her boyfriend at the time.

When she approached her college, they were “very adamant” that they didn’t want the police involved. Instead, they presented OSCCA, the University’s disciplinary body as a “cleaner, faster, smoother alternative”. Senior individuals in her college made persistent comments about the benefits of using the informal route as opposed to the formal process. Eventually, when she agreed, she felt they applauded her for choosing the supposedly “kinder” process.

The informal OSCCA route allows victims and their perpetrators to come to resolution agreements: for instance, by limiting the spaces in college they are both allowed to be at. However, as Ella tells me, she felt that the “person who gets accused gets the most power… it was all very much on his terms”. It’s a recurrent theme that many of the victims I talk to raise. Ella’s perpetrator delayed the process for several months, citing exams as the reason, despite them both being on the same course.

OSCCA states that cases reported through the informal route take around 1-2 months to process. Eight months after Ella had filed the original complaint, a settlement was finally agreed upon, limiting the spaces in college they are both allowed to be at.

But for Ella, this was “too little, too late”. During this time, she developed an alcohol dependency, and relied on drinking to fall asleep. She pauses for a second, hinting at how she experienced suicidal thoughts in the months that the process was delayed.

“She wishes she would have more seriously considered going to the police”

On top of this, the informal agreement lacks any enforcement mechanisms. Her perpetrator “constantly violates the contract” and only sits a few rows away from her in lectures. Her gaze falls to the table we’re sat on, her voice cracks slightly, “I still see him everywhere”. She feels she was given “false hope” about the what the process could achieve and that in reality, their lives have “remained very intertwined”.

Over a year on, she regrets reporting the incidents to OSCCA. She wishes she would have more seriously considered going to the police and feels her college deterred her and misrepresented OSCCA as an equivalent process: “They made it seem like an alternative, but it’s not.”

“Only got worse”

Alice bustles into the café on a sunny Sunday morning; hair swept into a ponytail; a gym bag swung over one shoulder. She was stalked at her college by someone in a position of power. It wasn’t the first time for her perpetrator to land himself in trouble either. He had a “reputation”, she tells me.

She was assured that reporting through the college would be a quick process. Following a month of discussions, a contract was put in place, outlining strict restrictions on his ability to contact her. Within ten minutes of signing the contract, Alice’s perpetrator had already breached its terms by sending her a message on Facebook.

In fact, the stalking “only got worse” after the contract was put in place. With nothing holding the contract together, her perpetrator “didn’t take it seriously at all”. “They should have told me to go to the police” Alice asserts. In fact, she feels she was “actively discouraged” by her college from going to the police.

Eventually, Alice did report the matter to the police, who turned out to be “great”. She’s certain the stalking “would have stopped much sooner” had she gone to the police at the start. She was booked in for an appointment as soon as possible and slowly but surely, things started to improve.

“I wouldn’t want to put anyone through what I went through”

The toll on her and her academics has been immense. But, Alice couldn’t access the support she needed. She wasn’t allowed to see the college counsellor due to a supposed “conflict of interest” as her perpetrator was receiving counselling from the counsellor too. I ask her whether she would advise the college reporting system to anyone. She shakes her head and laughs a little, “I wouldn’t want to put anyone through what I went through”.

An “epidemic”

It hasn’t always been this way. Up until six years ago, universities were not to deal with cases of misconduct that could also constitute a criminal offence. But, the Pinsent Mason guidelines changed the way things were done, advising universities on how to handle student disciplinary issues where the alleged misconduct could also constitute a crime.

I speak to Rose Stephenson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, who explained: “Overnight, universities went from not really dealing with this, to running quasi-judicial processes, for cases up to, and including, sex without consent.”

I ask her why it is that students often do opt for the university route of reporting. She accepts that the alternative, the criminal justice system, takes an “incredibly long time”, and that it can be “very traumatic” for the reporting party.

“Ultimately”, she says, “what a lot of victim-survivors want, is to carry on with their life, and not have to do it knowing their alleged perpetrator is in their lectures, accommodation halls and so on.” But she does admit it makes her feel “uncomfortable” that universities are “filing that gap” in the justice system.

Despite the change of guidelines happening six years ago, continued calls for a national framework have fallen on deaf ears. Rose warns this had led to a “huge variation” between universities in how they deal with cases of sexual misconduct. She explains that if you’re found to have groped someone in a nightclub, “one university might expel you and another might tell you off”.

“If universities were investigating murder, we’d all think that was totally inappropriate. Yet we’re doing it for rape.”

Kieran McCartan, professor of Criminology from the University of the West of England, echoes this: “what you get is 130 universities all doing their own thing”. In his view, sexual violence is an “epidemic” that’s “happening across all universities in the country”. He too, wants to see a “driving force” from central government. Rose leaves me with one comment that stays with me: “If universities were investigating murder, we’d all think that was totally inappropriate. Yet we’re doing it for rape.”

A two-tier system

OSCCA states that legal representation is “not normally necessary or appropriate” in their proceedings. But, in “exceptional circumstances” a student can seek a legal representative “at their own cost”, provided that they receive permission from the Student Discipline Office.

I speak to a defence lawyer at a leading law firm, who’s witnessed a “clear upsurge” in recent years of students contacting her to seek legal representation after being accused of sexual assault.

“Representatives on panels are left looking like “rabbits in the headlights””

She’s all too familiar with student conduct boards across the UK - not just OSCCA. She has grave concerns. She feels universities lack the specialist training and resources to deal with serious sexual assault cases. She warns of the “huge, wide-ranging implications for both parties” that stem from this. Representatives on panels are left looking like “rabbits in the headlights”.

She urges the presence of lawyers to be more present in the process and calls for consistency across the country. In her view, if universities were more willing to accept a legal presence, “they would see the value we [lawyers] bring to the table”. She assures me that introducing legal representation is “nothing to be afraid of” as it would only “bring about fairness to the process”.

I can see her point, but it doesn’t sit quite right with me. I challenge her: “Wouldn’t that create a two-tier system of who can afford it versus who can’t?”.

“That’s a problem for the government. Anyway…”, she dismisses and goes on to tell me how she works “covertly” with students, assuming a role “behind the scenes”, regardless of whether permission is granted; “You know… off the record”.

“A broken dream”

The experiences of the victims that I have spoken to have varied, from what took place, where and by whom. But, they contain frightening similarities. Frankly, this is only the tip of the iceberg; only a fraction of sexual assault cases are reported to the university, even less to the police. Many, many more cases exist. During the course of this investigation, I’ve been in contact with over a dozen individuals in similar positions, who point to the same issues again and again. Many feel they cannot speak out, even anonymously, due to serious concerns over their safety and anonymity.


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Ella and I finish the remaining dregs of our coffee and wander towards the door of the café. When I turn to say goodbye to her, the far-reaching impacts of sexual assault really hit home.

She begins to reflect on how the past year has profoundly tainted her time at Cambridge, “I really hate it here... genuinely, I don’t think I’ve ever hated being in a place so much” she admits, her voice cracking.

Her eyes well, as she remembers how excited she was to have the opportunity to come to Cambridge. Now, she can’t help but feel she was sold “a broken dream”. The incidents and the way they were handled have left her with an unshakeable desire to “distance herself from this place entirely”.

Soon, the two of us are emotional. “I will never get that time at university back. I still have nightmares about what happened”, she whispers.

We turn away from each other and walk to opposite sides of the street.

A University spokesperson said: “Sexual misconduct has no place at Cambridge. We have clear policies and processes in place about how claims of sexual misconduct are to be treated, and how students will be supported. Further information is available on the University’s Breaking the Silence and Student Complaints webpages.”

The names and some details have been changed to protect their anonymity and privacy.