Left to right: Alex da Costa, Audrey Sebatindira, Amelia Horgan, Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa SdroliaDaniel Gayne

With abuse revelations in sport currently charting the same course as the scandals in the Catholic Church and the BBC, it seems that few institutions are above suspicion when it comes to the abuse of authority for sexual gain.

If a recent report in The Guardian is anything to go by, a sexual harassment crisis of a similar scale exists in UK higher education. Against this backdrop, the ‘Critical Theory and Practice Seminar Series’, first set up by Cambridge Defend Education, held their panel event on Sexual Harassment in UK Higher Education last Tuesday.

The moderator, Mahvish Ahmad, introducing the panel of five to a somewhat reduced audience, noted events centred on issues like gender violence tend to receive a “systematically different response” from the packed rooms seen at, for example, the series’ previous event on Donald Trump.

Ahmad started the evening with a dedication to Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian feminist scholar and critical theorist who resigned her position at Goldsmiths University in June, in protesting alleged staff-to-student sexual harassment at the University.

Ahmed is expected to speak to the seminar series next term, but in the meantime recommended to the organisers the ‘1752 Group’, a consulting and strategy organisation which has been working to lead a national conversation on staff-to-student sexual misconduct since 2012. 

Heidi Hasbrouck and Chryssa Sdrolia, both representatives of the 1752 Group and former students of Goldsmiths, kicked the discussion off by criticising the “culture of condoning” in higher education and noting the importance of using the term ‘misconduct’ rather than harassment. Harassment, they argued, was just one of the many behaviours encompassed by misconduct, which also includes grooming, bullying, and sexual invitations.

“At every step you are in fear of having to be in a room with someone who’s done something to you”

— Alex da Costa

They also remarked upon the intersecting inequalities which might come into play where abuse in higher education is concerned. In particular, it was noted that the “gap in cultural awareness” that many international students face can allow staff to abuse their power. 

The complex visa status of international students was also noted as something which might put them in a precarious position and therefore discourage them from reporting misconduct. 

Indeed, the precariousness of many students’ situation was raised by a number of panellists. Alex da Costa, a fellow at Newnham College, said that misconduct was particularly prevalent at the post-graduate level, where students have greater one-on-one contact with their supervisors. But, she argued, it’s “not just about supervision...will they write you a good reference, will they help you using their contacts?”

Da Costa went on to discuss the difficulties which complainants may face with the University’s internal procedures, presenting a complicated flow chart which mapped out the path a victim would have to follow. She pointed out that “at every step you are in fear of having to be in a room with someone who’s done something to you” and argued that “we need policies that are supportive and non-traumatic”.

At a certain stage of the process, the chart emphasised the important of having a calm and balanced discussion about the accusations, which da Costa suggested put pressure on the complainant to respond emotionally in a certain way.

Audrey Sebatindira, CUSU Women’s Officer, spoke specifically of Cambridge, criticising the collegiate system, which she said isolated students.

Referring to ongoing work on new University guidelines on sexual harassment, she said that College emphasis on independence has made something very difficult of what “should have been a very straightforward piece of work”.

She also noted that the divided nature of student politics in a collegiate system makes it more difficult to share information, advice, and tactics, with the result being that you get a lot of well-meaning Women’s Officers trying to “reinvent the wheel”.

It was generally agreed upon by the panellists that a national framework was crucial. “We cannot rely on the good will of any college to do anything about it”, said the Sdrolia.

Amelia Horgan, former CUSU Women’s Officer and current holding a place on the NUS National Executive Council, compared the legal situation in the UK to the United States. In the US, ‘Title IX’ legislation means that federal funding will be withdrawn from any publicly funded institution that discriminates against women. The UK has no equivalent, despite most higher education institutions being publicly funded, with the UK’s legal framework falling under a subset of workplace law.

She raised and quickly dismissed the idea of league tables of universities, pointing out that it potentially lets institutions off the hook: “we all know that on paper some colleges have great policies, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything”.

The 1752 Group had a laundry list of suggestions, including a proposal to form an independent office for gender inequalities and misconduct on campuses to represent students directly.

The true extent of sexual misconduct by staff in Higher Education may remain unknown for a long time. The culture of condoning that allegedly permeates institutions like Goldsmiths and the use of non-disclosure agreements by many universities both serve to keep many victims quiet.

But if such allegations ever do see the light of day, it seems that activist group like the 1752 Group will be ready to provide the solutions

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