Downing and Trinity Colleges are amongst the Cambridge Colleges with records of allegations of sexual harassmentLucas Chebib/Danie van der Merwe

An investigation by The Guardian suggests “epidemic levels” of sexual harassment and misconduct by university staff across the UK, with experts stressing that the real number of incidents is probably higher than represented in formalised data.

The study shed light on a lack of official, appropriate and effective complaint processes in higher education institutions, whose procedures are often not attuned to the psychological factors that would deter victims of harassment from full pursuit of formal resolution.

The report comes in the wake of an overhaul of the procedure for handling allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct at the University. Following the surprise withdrawal in December of a Regent House Grace which would have empowered the Academic Secretary to impose a number of restrictions on accused students while investigations took place, a new Grace was passed on Friday with slightly modified proposals in much the same vein.

Under the new procedure, complaints made to the University will be examined by an investigator with no knowledge of anyone involved in the alleged incident. The investigator will then either take no further action; try to mediate an arrangement between the two parties involved, in which the accused student would agree to accept certain restrictions on their conduct or perhaps an intermission; or refer the case to the University Advocate, who will decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to bring a charge against the accused student. If a charge is brought, a panel will judge whether or not the student breached the University's rules. In serious cases, the panel is entitled to impose a temporary or permanent exclusion from the University.

Across the UK, 169 allegations against academic and non-academic staff were made by students between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 academic years, The Guardian reported. A further 127 allegations were made against staff by their colleagues in this same period.

However, The Guardian deemed their estimate of all recorded cases, 296, “likely to be conservative”, on grounds that sexual harassment often goes unreported. It also cautioned against drawing the conclusion that sexual harassment is necessarily more common at universities with the highest numbers of recorded incidents, noting that these might simply be doing a better job of identifying cases.

The investigation found that Oxford had the highest number of allegations by students concerning staff in the UK, totalling 11 from the 2011-12 academic year to present, of which only one was investigated. 17 staff were also accused of sexual harassment or misconduct by other staff members, but only 6 of these cases were investigated. 

Dr Ann Olivarius, Senior Partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius, attributed inconsistent records to victim fear about the ramifications of filing a complaint about a staff member. “So often, when they do”, said Olivarius, “the university’s chief concern is to downplay any wrongdoing and protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.”

According to the investigation, 32 per cent of universities have no formal overarching policy on staff-student relationships, including Cambridge. The University has seen 6 formal allegations from 2011-12 to date, 5 of which were investigated, and 2 members of staff are believed to have left or changed jobs following allegations during this time. A further 7 allegations were made by staff against their colleagues, all of which were investigated.

Data specific to Cambridge colleges found that further procedural variability exists between these. Only 8 of the 32 colleges have formal student-staff and staff-staff relationship policies: Clare, Churchill, Downing, Lucy Cavendish, Murray Edwards, Pembroke, Trinity and Trinity Hall. The investigation claims that Fitzwilliam, Hughes Hall, Kings, Magdalene, St Edmunds and Wolfson all provided evidence of policies stating general guidelines for conduct, rather than of policies which specifically referred to staff-student relationships.

At each of Downing and Trinity, there was one reported investigation of a student allegation against a staff member and one of a staff accusation against a colleague. During the period in question, Magdalene College investigated three instances of alleged harassment and misconduct between staff members.

Some colleges also provided only vague information for the investigation. Hughes Hall specified neither the number of allegations made by students against staff, nor total number of investigations undertaken, listing allegations from 2011-12 to date simply as ‘<5’. Similarly, Fitzwilliam reported allegations, investigations and the number of staff who left or changed jobs following investigations into allegations from both students and other staff members as ‘<5’. The investigation lists the data for Corpus Christi simply as “not held”.

It is widely argued that traversing the complicated ground of student and staff relationships has only been made more difficult by a lack of institutional clarity and consistency. Speaking to The Guardian, Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, noted, “We know that institutions which take tackling sexual harassment and violence seriously, and have policies and systems in place to encourage reporting and train staff to deal with complaints as they arise, report higher numbers.”

“It’s the universities which aren’t dealing with this openly which perversely appear to have fewer problems.”

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