Data from a Freedom of Information Act request reveals that expulsion has never been used as a sanction in an instance of sexual misconductLouis Ashworth

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of sexual misconduct and rape, and legal proceedings concerning these issues. Resources for support and guidance can be found at the bottom of this article.

Last weekend, Graham Virgo, the Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, wrote a letter to The Guardian claiming, “Cambridge University students are being protected against all forms of harassment”. The letter was in response to The Guardian’s coverage of a recent change in the University’s rules regarding sexual violence cases, which has been called “unlawful” by legal experts and advocacy groups. Virgo claimed that “the University has a number of widely publicised safeguards in place”, citing its Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor, and that Cambridge has been at the forefront of institutional change in how universities deal with sexual violence.

To those who don’t know the ins-and-outs of Cambridge’s disciplinary procedure and the controversy that has been brought upon it, the letter seems reasonable. But to those who do know the procedure well, and to those whose cases have been impacted by the recent rule change, however, it comes across as disingenuous at best, and at worst a calculated PR-move aiming to get the media off Cambridge’s back so it can continue to ignore and suppress complaints of sexual misconduct, unchecked.

Virgo’s piece responds to recent criticisms about the rule change, yet entirely evades the substance of these criticisms. Furthermore, it does not once address the real concerns that students and staff have. Largely the concerns have stemmed from a recent change in the rules regarding the University’s disciplinary procedure. A June decision by a Chair of the University disciplinary committee excluded sexual misconduct from its definition of harassment. This one ruling has halted due process for sexual misconduct complaints: there is currently no procedure under which students can successfully report sexual assault or rape which occurred prior to 1st October, unless they can also prove a separate claim of harassment.

The institution is lagging painfully behind, dragging down vulnerable students with it

A new procedure comes into place on 1st October, but any kind of sexual misconduct that occurred prior to October which is not also deemed as harassment will not be investigated. (Students can still report incidents of sexual misconduct by members of their college under college disciplinary procedures, which are separate from the University.)

Whilst Virgo stated that instances of harassment that occur before 1st October will continue to be investigated, he conveniently sidesteps any mention of sexual assault and rape, the exact nature of cases that have essentially been excluded from disciplinary investigation. He did not even acknowledge the two students who have already had their cases dropped as a direct result of this rule change.

Virgo claims that the University “has been at the forefront of efforts within higher education to ensure that students feel protected and supported against all forms of harassment”, yet his only evidence for this is the recent appointment of a Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor. This is not a number of safeguards but a single one, and whilst it is undeniable that having a specialist trained member of staff to help support victims of sexual violence at the University is invaluable, the University cannot use this as proof that they have been at the forefront of combating sexual violence in higher education. Durham University introduced this as a permanent position in August 2016, before Cambridge. In fact, Durham is ahead of Cambridge in many ways in this respect, because their sexual violence advocate has power within the University beyond providing pastoral support, also running preventative training, managing cases, and helping develop policies.

Virgo went on to note the many sanctions the University can use if a case is upheld, specifically mentioning expulsion, but Freedom of Information (FOI) data reveals that this has never been used as a sanction – not just in the disciplinary procedure, but in any procedure that the University has to investigate sexual violence. According to CUSU Women’s Campaign (WomCam), Cambridge will be the last UK university to cease using the criminal standard of proof, which is, in fact, against the national guidance that Graham Virgo himself was involved in creating.

Cambridge is not at the “forefront” of anything – the university is lagging painfully behind other institutions, dragging down vulnerable students with it and falling far short in its duty of care. At a conference I was invited to speak at on Staff-Student Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education this summer, I received a telling response when I said that I was from Cambridge: far from praise for their apparent safeguards, I was met with eye-rolls and commiserations.

Cambridge has been and continues to be built on the bodies of the complaints that it has buried

Virgo writes, correctly, that the new procedure which comes into force in October is relatively progressive and has the possibility to create real, tangible change for victims of sexual violence. Who do we have to thank for this new procedure, for this monumental and long overdue change? Students and staff, who have spent decades campaigning for it. WomCam have been campaigning for an end to sexual violence in the University since the 1970s, and published their first report, ‘Cambridge Speaks Out’, on the issue in 2014. Virgo’s letter makes no acknowledgement of their work.

Cambridge first started investigating complaints of sexual misconduct in 2015, but since then, only two cases have been fully upheld (that is, the complaint has been found proven beyond reasonable doubt by an internal committee). In the meantime, Cambridge received 173 individual reports of sexual misconduct in just the first eight months after the anonymous reporting system was launched, in May 2017. It has taken until this year for a procedure to be approved that may actually be fit for purpose, precisely because the fight for a fair and trauma-informed procedure has been met with significant and persistent resistance from the University. This change is the result of a long, hard-fought fight, and it is deeply inappropriate for the University to co-opt the success that they resisted for so long. It is especially distasteful to do so in a letter that seems to serve the sole purpose of suppressing the concerns from members of the University about their own safety.

The response from the University, both generally in regard to creating a safe environment for students and a trauma-informed reporting system and specifically to the most recent rule change, has been inadequate at best. Demands for improvement have consistently been met with resistance. A genuine step forward in regard to procedures is matched by an “unlawful” rule change that leaves no recourse or justice for students who have experienced, or may experience, sexual violence before 1st October. The success of students and staff who have protested for years has been co-opted as a victory for the University to brag about to journalists. The Pro-Vice Chancellor of Education has time to write to The Guardian, it seems, but not to address members of the University, nor to speak to or offer support to the victims who have been impacted by the rule change.


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Until the University shows a genuine openness to change and an appreciation of those who have fought for that change for so long, the culture that allows sexual violence to be so pervasive in Cambridge will continue. Changes in procedures are one type of success, but unless coupled with a significant shift in the culture it will not be enough.

It is important to note that inaccessible procedures and sudden, “unlawful” rule changes only exist because they have benefitted a University that seems to care more about its image than the safety of its students and staff. If complaints are dropped before charges are even pressed, or before a hearing occurs, they might as well not exist in the University’s eyes. They will not be included in FOI requests. They will not be published in the Cambridge University Reporter. They are a problem suppressed; invisible. Cambridge University has been and continues to be built on the bodies of the complaints that it has buried. As Sara Ahmed wrote, “Making it hard to complain about what is being done is how institutions are doing what they do: the beep; beep of an error message is the clunk; clunk of a machine.”

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources: