CUSU women's officer Lola Olufemi has played a crucial role in pushing for these reformsLola Olufemi

In October 2017, the university launched the campaign Breaking the Silence to prevent sexual violence on campus. Now, six months later, members of the university community are asking what further measures Cambridge must take to ensure survivors receive adequate support from the institution.

“What we’re doing [with Breaking the Silence] is admitting that we have a problem,” said Lola Olufemi, CUSU Women’s Officer, who is one of the major forces behind changes in university policy around sexual violence. “Now… it becomes about whether we are willing to take the difficult steps and have the necessary conversations to tackle it. And that means, are we willing to fund the support services that are being outsourced? Are we willing to create in-house support services? Are we willing to listen to students’ feedback on the informal procedure and the disciplinary procedure? Are we willing to pressure colleges – every single college – to have someone that students can access, that works specifically on sexual violence and assault?”

“... in an increasingly marketized higher education system, universities are presenting themselves as good on issues like race and gender and are getting all of these accreditations without actually doing the work that is needed to move them forward”

On 1st May, a Senate House discussion will be dedicated to one of those conversations – whether the university should rely on balance of probabilities, the civil standard of proof, or beyond reasonable doubt, the criminal standard of proof, for deciding student disciplinary matters. Currently, the university employs beyond reasonable doubt in the student disciplinary procedure.

In a disciplinary procedure that uses balance of probabilities, a case is decided in favour of the party whose statement is most likely to be true. In a disciplinary procedure that uses beyond reasonable doubt, a case is decided in favour of the complainant only if the evidence provided leaves no room for doubt as to whether the alleged incident occurred. Professional regulators frequently rely on balance of probabilities to try cases of professional misconduct, and most universities across the UK employ balance of probabilities as their standard of proof for internal disciplinary procedures. According to Sarah d’Ambrumenil, head of the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints, and Appeals (OSCCA) at Cambridge, “In terms of [not using] balance of probabilities, we’re definitely in the minority. I couldn’t guarantee that we are the only university, but there’s definitely many, many more universities that use the balance of probabilities standard of proof.”

The Senate House discussion comes after the Women’s Campaign encouraged ten academics to write to the university draftsmen calling for the discussion. The campaign also published an open letter to the university demanding a shift to balance of probabilities. Olufemi reported that the letter has gathered over seven hundred signatures from students and academics throughout the institution.

“We know that the way that sexual violence happens is most likely in small and secluded spaces, with somebody that you know, and those are very difficult [to prove]”

About the need for this conversation, Olufemi told Varsity, “We’ve been having discussions about how to make Breaking the Silence meaningful, and not just a publicity exercise, because I think in an increasingly marketized higher education system, universities are presenting themselves as good on issues like race and gender and are getting all of these accreditations without actually doing the work that is needed to move them forward. So one of the things that we decided would be our priority was campaigning on the disciplinary procedure.”

Although balance of probabilities would be implemented across all student disciplinary matters were the change to take place, it would have specific repercussions for cases of sexual harassment and misconduct. According to Olufemi, “We... know that the way that sexual violence happens is most likely... in small and secluded spaces, with somebody that you know, and those are very difficult [to prove], if you have a very evidence-based approach… To make the procedure less cold, and more personable, the balance of probabilities is a good measure… It’s the standard used when cases where the possibility of error in both directions is deemed equal. It is an important step toward signaling… that you can have faith in the institution, because [the change would go] a long way in terms of people’s belief that if they do come forward, they will be believed.”

Dr. Elaine Freer, a college teaching officer and fellow in law at Robinson College, is more skeptical about relying on balance of probabilities in the student disciplinary procedure. “I am uncomfortable with the use of the balance of probabilities,” she told Varsity, “because, in cases regarding harassment, including sexual violence, the University will be deciding matters that could still be prosecuted through the criminal courts.”

She explained that although “most professional regulators… now use the balance of probabilities when deciding whether a professional misconduct case is proven…, [when] professional regulators hear a case, that is always after any criminal proceedings have concluded...

Between October 2017 and March 2018, six complaints were received through the Procedure for Handling Student Cases of Harassment.

“... The current system leaves open a real possibility that the proceedings at the university will then be used in a later criminal investigation, if one occurs. This could jeopardise both the prosecution case and the defence case. It also means that anyone advising an accused student has to have in mind all of the possible outcomes, and uses to which material from the disciplinary procedures might be used in a criminal court.”

Olufemi, however, argued that heavy focus on traditional legal standards may be inappropriate for cases of sexual misconduct. “We know that cases of rape and sexual violence are the least likely to be convicted in a criminal court. Using that model, and that basis, does nothing to meaningfully move the conversation forward about what the institution should be doing. Alongside that, having robust formal procedures is nothing if you don’t have in-house support systems. When students experience sexual violence, as I have found from students I’ve worked with…, often they don’t want to know what their options are, they want support – a specific kind of support, that enables them to process what has happened to them.”

Since Breaking the Silence was launched, if you’ve encountered sexual harassment or misconduct as a student on campus and you wish to report the incident to the university, you have the following options. You can report your experience anonymously through an online form, in which case the university will collect the report to provide data about the prevalence of sexual misconduct on campus. Between October 2017 and March 2018, one hundred sixty anonymous reports were filed.

If you wish to take further action, you can file an informal complaint with OSCCA. Through the office, an investigator meets with both the complainant and the respondent to record any statements about the incident in question, and to help determine further action that both the complainant and respondent can agree upon, based on the requests of the complainant. This informal procedure is called the Procedure for Handling Student Cases of Harassment and Sexual Misconduct. Between October 2017 and March 2018, six complaints were received through this channel.

But if the respondent will not agree to the action that the complainant requests, or if the complainant does not feel that the proper action has been taken after the informal procedure has concluded, the complainant can file a formal complaint under Regulation Six – the regulation that specifically treats harassment and sexual misconduct – of the Cambridge Statutes and Ordinances. (Or, you can skip the informal procedure and request the formal procedure right away.)

The University Advocate receives your complaint and determines whether the case can be properly investigated under the definition of harassment outlined in Regulation Six. If so, she will present a charge to the respondent, and the case will be heard by a disciplinary committee composed of five people. The committee will decide whether and what sanctions will be imposed. The defendant then has the right to appeal the decision. Over the course of 2016-17, four complaints relating to Regulation Six were received.


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Olufemi stated that although the 2017 establishment of the informal procedure was an important step in providing more resources for survivors, much work still needs to be done to make the formal disciplinary procedure accessible. “[The informal procedure] was originally created to enable people to carry on with their studies, and to not have to carry on with a very laborious, intensely stressful and scrutinising disciplinary procedure. It enables the complainant to say, “I don’t want to see that person between these hours”, or “I don’t want that person to enter my college”, all of which are necessary provisions, and a form of harm reduction. But this doesn’t get to the fundamental, underlying problem, which is that nobody accesses the disciplinary procedure for cases of sexual harassment and assault.”

D’Ambrumenil told Varsity that the student disciplinary procedure is currently undergoing a series of revisions. About accessibility, she said, “That’s one of the things that we’re looking to improve… When we’re revising the student disciplinary procedure, we’re really looking at all the guidance available to ensure that it is as accessible as possible.” She noted that OSCCA would welcome any opinions from the university body while the disciplinary procedure is under review.

Considering changes she would like to see in the future, Olufemi told Varsity, “In an ideal world we’d have a disciplinary procedure that was simplified so that students could access it, use the balance of probabilities, and then they’d be able to access a group of people – not just one person – a team of people with specific experience in dealing with survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse… Having a more progressive disciplinary procedure signals that the university is changing, and that it isn’t so attached to tradition at the expense of functionality, or at the expense of the welfare of its students.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following information and support is available: