Dr Emma Chapman
Cambridge University has revealed they received 173 reports of sexual misconduct in the first nine months of a new “anonymous reporting” system. We’re still talking about small number data but this report raises several questions:
What is “anonymous reporting”?
There is a distinction between anonymous reporting system, and an anonymous data gathering system. We are really pleased to see universities increasingly using online forms to source disclosures in an anonymous fashion, because to motivate change and measure success we need data. But the form mentioned, as with the vast majority of so-called anonymous reporting forms do not actually allow you to report. They contain multiple-choice categories only and no free text box where you can name the perpetrator, the college or department where the misconduct has taken place. This is because when someone is named universities are bound by student safeguarding rules to investigate the issue (quite rightly!) and currently that is either seen as untenable (quite wrongly!) or that’s simply not their aim, like Cambridge University’s data gathering exercise.
Isn’t anonymous reporting a little… unfair?
Anonymous reporting, where you can submit as much or as little information as you want, is not a scary new form of reactive justice. It is simply another pathway for kick-starting a proactive investigation, the same investigation that is started if someone walks into an office to make the complaint. In both situations evidence must be gathered, fair process must be followed and both sides must be allowed to have their say. What anonymous reporting does is remove that layer of fear associated with face-to-face disclosure. It allows you to say, “Hey, there’s a problem here, you need to look into it” and then later take part in the investigation as one of many voices. You aren’t necessarily alone above the parapet any more.
That’s a big number! Does Cambridge have a problem?
Yes and no. It is a big number, but that’s not surprising considering we know sexual misconduct is chronically underreported and this 173 responses includes historical responses, not incidents which have only occurred in the last 9 months. This kind of data gathering exercise should be occurring every year at the every university. Not only that, but for staff sexual misconduct there should be open annual records of number of investigations carried out, category of outcome (e.g. final warning/preliminary warning/no action/dismissal) and, to prevent historic practice of “keeping things informal”, the numbers of complaints. Ideally this would be a mandatory submission, in the same way that gender pay gap data is, to a central office, such as the Office for Students. Our research indicates that Cambridge University would not be alone in having such high numbers as time and time again we see that sexual misconduct is a sector-wide problem.
Why do people feel safer disclosing sexual misconduct anonymously?
The fact that so many people wanted to disclose anonymously without specific action being taken speaks to the lack of trust in the current disciplinary processes. Indeed Cambridge has confirmed that only a handful of formal allegations were reported in the last term. We are also concerned about student expectations: that students understand that action will not be taken immediately by the university. We’ve discussed that at length before so we won’t focus on that here but needless to say there is a lot of work to be done before current processes present the complainant and perpetrator on equal footing.
We found it interesting that only 2 of the 173 responses were staff-to-student sexual misconduct. Does that speak to a rarity of that form of abuse or something more? Staff-to-student sexual misconduct can often be more subtle than student-to-student due to the inherent power imbalance, and displays many similarities to a grooming process. The student may not even recognise it as sexual misconduct until much further down the line when they have left the university or indeed academia, when things have gone wrong or if they experience retaliation. It’s one of the reasons why in our recent 1752 Group survey with the NUS we allowed responses from previous students who experienced staff-student sexual misconduct earlier in their careers. It will be interesting to see what the data from our survey says about staff-to-student sexual misconduct as it is something which anonymous data gathering surveys like the one from Cambridge often miss in their narrow categories of harassment. We look at the power imbalance through encompassing a wider range of behaviours in our definition of sexual misconduct.
“We use the term sexual misconduct to describe forms of power enacted by academic, professional, contracted, and temporary staff in their relations with students (this can also occur in relations with other staff members) in higher education. Sexual misconduct can include harassment, assault, grooming, coercion, bullying, sexual invitations and demands, comments, non-verbal communication, creation of atmospheres of discomfort, and promised resources in exchange for sexual access. The term ‘sexual harassment’ captures only some of the possible abuses of power that may occur within a higher education institution. Sexual misconduct impacts students of all gender identities and sexualities. It raises issues of unequal relationships, consent, and the prevention of equal access to education for all.“
In conclusion, it’s great that Cambridge University moving forward in the vital work of quantifying the problem of sexual misconduct and we hope that all universities start doing this as standard. For real impact however, we need to see that first step translate into reformed, transparent disciplinary processes and anonymous reporting pathways to make sure no one is left unable to speak out, even the most afraid.