Policy Guides: Sexual Misconduct

Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in UK Universities and at Oxford

By Alice Churm, Policy and Change Coordinator, November 2021

TW: Sexual Misconduct, Harassment and Violence. If you are affected by any of these issues and need support please contact the University's Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service, OSARCC, or Oxford SU Advice Centre


At Oxford Students' Union, we know that sexual misconduct is an important issue for students across the UK, and a prominent issue here at Oxford. We acknowledge that to effectively campaign for change in this space, it is vital that we paint a picture of the history of the issue, the impact it has on students and areas for change. This policy guide explores the relevant data and research in the sector, the key themes and areas that arise from this, and national policies and guidance for universities. Although this may initially feel like a lot of information, and can be overwhelming, the final section details how this policy knowledge can be used to inform change-making or lobbying work in this area. We also know this can be a deeply personal issue, and often those that are campaigning on sexual misconduct, harassment and violence are those that have been most effected it. A vital part of lobbying in this space is looking after yourself. If you need any support please reach out to relevant support services at detailed above, and remember that your own wellbeing is paramount.


The Research

Over 10 years ago, in 2010 NUS produced their report 'Hidden Marks'. This was the first ever nationwide research report exploring women student's experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault. Amongst all the important data, this report found that 68% of women students surveyed had experienced some form of verbal or non-verbal harassment in or around their institution. This included groping, flashing or unwanted sexual comments. In addition, 25% of respondents had experienced sexual assault during their time as a student. Importantly, most of the perpetrators were already known to the respondents, and the majority were studying in the same institution as them, making this a vital issue for women students.

This report also explored the reporting in the aftermath of these incidents. The report found that four in ten victims of serious sexual assault hadn't told anybody that it had happened to them. Only 4% reported it to their university, and only 10% reported it to the police. The most common reason for lack of reporting was that they felt ashamed or embarrassed with 43% said they thought they would be blamed for what happened, and one in three thought they would not be believed.

However, seven years later in 2018 the issue of sexual misconduct, harassment and violence was still as prevalent, as detailed in a report by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room: 'Sexual Violence at Universities'. This report found that 62% of students and graduates surveyed had experienced sexual violence; specifically 70% of female students, 26% of male students and 61% of non-binary students. The most common locations for these incidents were at halls of residence, at social events and in university social spaces, again attaining to the campus centrality of this issue. Much like in 'Hidden Marks' reporting statistics remained low in this report. Only 6% of students that experienced sexual violence had reported it to the university or the police. It was only 2% of those who experienced sexual violence that felt able to report this to the university and were satisfied with the reporting process. The report also found that 8% of women who responded stated they were raped whilst at university, whilst at the time the Office for National Statistics reported that 4% of the female population in England and Wales had been raped. Seven years following NUS' ground breaking research, in 2018 sexual violence and misconduct still remained a central concern for women students across the UK.

Unfortunately moving into 2021, the landscape doesn't seem to have changed much. An insightful Al Jazeera investigation entitled 'Degrees of Abuse' attained to the prominence of this issue still. As part of this investigation Al Jazeera filed Freedom of Information Requests to all 164 university's in the UK. 125 of these universities responded, and this data revealed that 1,403 student sexual misconduct complaint had been reported to UK universities. Despite this large number, only 487 of these were investigated, and a further 309 lead to no further action from the university. Clearly the scope of this issue is still prominent and the structures of responding to these instances are not sufficient.

This investigation showed that there were 26 complaints of sexual misconduct at the University of Oxford. All of these cases were investigated and one was upheld, however non of these cases led to the accused being expelled from the university. It is important to remember that these cases were only those that were reported to the central university, as colleges individually have their own systems for responding to reports, which were not included in this data. This is not just a UK university wide issue, but an Oxford specific issue as well.


Staff to Student Sexual Misconduct

In 2018, The 1752 Group in collaboration with NUS produced their report: 'Power in The Academy', which looked at the issue of staff to student sexual misconduct in universities. This report found that of the students surveyed, 41% had experienced sexualised behaviour from a member of staff, and a further 5% were aware of someone they know experiencing this. Of the 1839 respondents, 65 had experienced non-consensual sexual contact from a staff member, and 15 had experienced sexual assault or rape by a staff member. Of all surveyed the most likely groups to experience any form of sexual misconduct from staff were gay, queer or bisexual women, and postgraduate women. This behaviour would often constitute a pattern of grooming, and these groups were more likely to experience being 'threatened with retaliation for not being sexual cooperative' or 'offered reward or special treatment for sex'. This will particularly have impact on postgraduate students who are trying to build careers in academia, and sit on the boundary of student and junior staff members, where the power dynamic is enhanced. The perpetrators were mainly academic staff such as lecturers or supervisors, however other staff noted to have been perpetrators included sports staff, security staff, students' union staff, and technical support staff. Only 9.6% of respondents indicated that they had reported staff-student misconduct to the university. The most common reasons cited for this was that they were not sure if the behaviour was serious enough to report, or that at the time, they did not recognise the behaviour as sexual misconduct. 13% of students stated they did not report, as they did not know who to tell, whilst 1 in 10 felt their harasser could retaliate against them, and 1 in 14 were afraid they would not be able to continue their studies. 

Moving forward into 2021, the Al Jazeera investigation 'Degrees of Abuse' found that of 252 sexual misconduct complaints against staff across UK universities, only 35 were investigated. As part of this investigation the Oxford University were used as a case study to instances of staff misconduct towards students from the History Faculty, English Faculty and Balliol College. Again, whilst these are national wide issues, these issues have particular significance to Oxford and our student community.


Impact on Students Experiences

All of the aforementioned reports not only focused on the data and statistics around sexual misconduct on campus, but additionally the impact these experiences have on students. Many of the students surveyed in these reports disclosed a substantial impact on their mental health following cases of sexual assault. In the 'Hidden Marks' report (2010), approximately half of the students surveyed that experienced sexual assault reported that their mental health had suffered following the incident. These experiences included: having suicidal thoughts, a loss of confidence, panic attacks, depression, and a loss of concentration. The 'Sexual Violence at Universities' report (2018) by Revolt Sexual Assault explored the impact of sexual violence on students academic experience, with 25% of respondents reporting skipping lectures and tutorials, and changing or dropping modules to avoid the perpetrator. 16% of respondents suspended their studies or even dropped out of their degree due to experiencing sexual assault at their university.  

The educational impact of these experiences had an exaggerated impact on women students in relation to staff to student sexual misconduct as evidenced through the 'Power in The Academy' (2018) report. This report evidenced that women respondents were much more likely to drop out of their course or university, and women respondents were three to four times more likely to skip lectures or tutorials to avoid their perpetrators. This impact also had large impact on progression and careers, as the incidents led to affecting relationships with supervisors, choices of modules, and occasionally leading to a change of universities or even careers. 

Focusing more on the student experiences of sexual misconduct, in 2020 the website 'Everyone's Invited' launched. This website created a space for student survivors of sexual assault and violence to write detailed testimonies of their experiences with sexual misconduct on campus. This moved the focus away from the statistics and data on the prevalence of the issue onto understanding the depth and impact on students that sexual assault and violence had on students. This website names every educational institution that has been named on their website (of which Oxford University is one), and as of 2021 this website had over 54,000 testimonies. 

It is important when exploring this issue not just to focus on data and numbers but to make public the evidenced impact that these incidents have on the lives of students that experience them. This is a real threat to students' mental wellbeing, success as a student and whole way of living. It is important that change in this space focusing on support for students both pastorally and academically as well as prevention and responding.


Recommendations and Responses

A part of the Hidden Marks report in 2010, NUS laid out recommendations that called for higher education institutions to take a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of violence and harassment, which should include the everyday harassment that students face, as well as more serious forms of violence. They also recommended that higher education institutions should develop comprehensive policies on how to tackle harassment and violence against women students in collaboration with their students' unions. 

Despite these recommendations, NUS's 'Lad Culture Audit' in 2015 found that only 51% of the universities they surveyed had sexual harassment policies, and an NUS survey of freshers in 2015 found that only 61% knew about the mechanisms for reporting sexual harassment or assault. 

In response to the work from NUS in this area, Universities UK established a taskforce to "examine violence against women, harassment and hate crime and make(s) recommendations in response to that evidence". This taskforce produced the report 'Changing the Culture', which laid out a series of recommendations for universities in tackling these issues. These recommendations were as follows:

  • Senior Leadership Responsibility
    All senior leaders of universities should give this issue priority status and dedicate appropriate resource to tackle it.

  • An Institutional Wide Response
    Governing bodies should be provided with regular reports on progress, regular impact assessment of progress should take place, and students' unions should be engaged in this work.

  • Prevention Initiatives
    The adoption of an evidence-based bystander intervention programme, partnership agreements between student and university should lay out behavioural expectations, disciplinary sanctions and university commitment to student safety, zero-tolerance approach embedded into all university activities including HR processes.

  • Adequate Response to Incidents
    Clear response system for incidents of sexual assault and rape, implementation of a centralised reporting system, training strategy for staff, maintain partnerships with relevant local organisations such as crisis centres, NHS, and local police.


Universities were not mandated to do this by Universities UK, but rather this was guidance and expectations for how Universities should be tackling the issue.

However, by early 2021 the issue was still as prevalent across UK universities, leading to the Office for Students to produce a 'Statement of Expectations'. As the regulator of universities, the statement of expectations lays out what UK universities need to do in relation to preventing and responding to harassment and sexual misconduct, giving it more weight and influence than the Universities UK guidance. These expectations are as follows:

  1. Clear communication of the approach for preventing and responding to sexual misconduct and harassment affecting students. 
    • Visible and ongoing commitment preventing and responding. 
    • Working with students (Students' Unions) to create a clear and consistent message that sexual misconduct and harassment will not be tolerated. 
    • A clear statement of behavioural expectations for all students, staff and visitors. 
  2. Governing body to ensure the approach is adequate and effective. 
    • Tackling sexual misconduct and harassment to be embedded into governance systems. 
    • The governing body to regularly be updates on the processes and systems. 
    • Ensuring those with governance roles are clear of issues relevant to their responsibilities. 
  3. Students should be involved with developing and evaluating systems, policies and processes. 
    • Engagement with students on development, implementation, evaluation and support systems, policies and processes. 
    • Engaging with a diverse range of students, including consideration of protected characteristics as well as mode and level of study.  
    • Engagement should be sensitive and support wellbeing. 
  4. Implementation of training for staff and students to raise awareness and prevent. 
    • A clear training strategy that assesses training needs of all staff to ensure staff can effectively respond to incidents. 
    • Training made available to staff and students on raising awareness and preventing incidents. 
  5. Adequate policies and processes for students to report and disclose incidents. 
    • Provision of easy-to-understand information for students and staff on how to report, disclose or seek support and advice. 
    • Support for students regardless of whether a formal report has been made. 
    • Policies and processes communicated to students in an accessible way. 
    • If required and requested, signposting students to police, NHS, crisis centres or hate crime reporting centres. 
    • Understanding of barriers to reporting that may exist for certain students. 
  6. Fair, clear and accessible approach to acting in response to reports and disclosures. 
    • Visible and easy to understand policy around disciplinary proceedings for students, staff or visitors. 
    • Information around the provider’s investigatory process, decision-making process and timescales. 
    • Fair, independent and free from bias investigatory process. 
    • Disciplinary panels free from bias, is diverse and includes student representatives. 
    • Staff are able to respond appropriately and consistently to a disclosure. 
    • Clear explanations on how confidential information should be used. 
  7. Students involved in investigatory processes have access to support. 
    • Both reporting and responding parties have access to support prior, during and after the formal investigation process. 
    • Timely communications with reporting and responding parties. 
    • All reports to be dealt clearly communicated and within a reasonable timeframe. 
    • Reporting and responding parties to be provided with the outcome of an investigation, and reasoning why the provided has taken such actions. 

As of yet, it is unclear how much this statement of expectation has been adopted by universities, and the impact it has had on change in this space. Yet, it is important to remember that this is a vital tool from the regulator that identifies key areas in which universities are expected to make change in this space.


How to Inform Your Work with Policy 

As this issue is so impactful and prominent at UK universities and at Oxford particularly, many students are campaigning for change in this area on a local level within their colleges, departments or university wide. Oxford SU are also influencing change in this space, and want to help support change-making initiatives in this area. Utilising policy in your work can regularly be a really impactful way of finding success. Understanding the background of an issue, and the national objectives around it can make all the difference when lobbying the university to make change. Here are some key ways in which you can embed this policy knowledge into your campaigning work.

  • Use the statistics above to show stakeholders and other students the scope and prevalence of this issue. Awareness campaigns can help build up a student movement around this area and build support for your cause.
  • Assess your colleges' sexual harassment policies, reporting structures and support provision against those detailed in both the Universities UK, and Office for Students guidance (remember that colleges need to adhere to Office for Students regulation as well as universities).
  • If you feel as though your college or university is not upholding their responsibility in relation to this issue, it is possible to alert the Office for Students as the regulator to this. This should be done through the Students' Union, so contact policy@oxfordsu.ox.ac.uk if you are considering this option. 
  • Tell our sabbatical officers the work you are doing in this area, or how you'd like support with this. Kemi, our VP Women would love to hear your thoughts or work in this space. 
  • Use this research and policy to propose a motion to student council. This can lay out principles of action, and mandate our sabbatical officers to do work in this space. Whilst work is already being done, student council mandates embed these principles in our organisation for longer than this academic year, and ensure continuity on issues important to students.


For more information or support with policy and campaigning, or to request a policy guide on another topic please contact policy@oxfordsu.ox.ac.uk