Even when students don’t have personal experience with sexual violence, they are aware of how big the problem is – and understandably it’s a worry.
A 2021 study by Endsleigh and the NUS found that a massive 70% of female students worry about their safety on campus – as do so many male and non-binary students.
The issue is complicated. While most cases of sexual violence happen between people who already know each other, students are also very likely to experience sexual harassment from strangers on nights out and in other social settings.
Every university is different – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of campus sexual violence. But we think that there are a few things all universities should try in order to make students feel safer and more supported. Here are our top evidence-based suggestions.
As the Office for Students has pointed out, every university needs to have a clear and rigorous reporting procedure in place. According to one study, 94% of students don’t disclose sexual harassment or violence to their universities. Why? Because the procedures in place can seem lengthy, complicated and even hostile to the students who need them.
There are signs that things are already moving in the right direction: the BBC reported in 2019 that universities they contacted had recorded 1,436 allegations of sexual harassment or assault in that academic year, as opposed to 476 in 2016-17.
While this might look bad on paper, these statistics reflect increased rates of reporting, rather than an increased incidence of sexual violence – which is positive, because it shows that trust in these institutions is growing.
However, the Office for Students’ new guidance on reporting procedures puts an emphasis on discipline and compensation. This overlooks what many students really want from making a complaint: to protect other students from harm and to move on with their academic lives and careers.
Lots of students are concerned about their own safety, but the research shows that they are also concerned about the safety of others. Building reporting procedures that reflect the needs of students will help universities to get a better idea of the scale of the problem, and enable students to look out for each other.
A survey by The Tab last year found that 80% of students don’t feel safe walking home alone, with 77% feeling unsafe on public transport.
At Cardiff University, students can get taxis home from a trusted provider for free by quoting “Cardiff University Safe Taxi Scheme”. Universities in Edinburgh and Kent both have “walking taxi” schemes where volunteers or members of security staff can escort students to their accommodation when they feel unsafe.
In 2019, Wolverhampton Council launched a Get Home Safe campaign aimed at the 4,500 new university students arriving in the city every year. This campaign set out tips and advice about using taxis to get home from nights out safely.
The campaign was so successful that Wolverhampton Council chose to roll it out to the entire local area last year. Having clear, easily accessible information on how to get home safely helps students to know their options and make safer decisions.
In London, some universities – including London Metropolitan University and the University of Greenwich – have signed up to join Sadiq Khan’s Women’s Night Safety Charter.
Organisations that commit to being part of this charter pledge to nominate a women’s safety champion, encourage reporting of harassment, and train staff to handle all reports of sexual harassment appropriately.
Universities don’t need to restrict students’ social lives to keep them safe – but it is crucial for universities to work closely with councils and other local organisations to put safety measures in place.
More than half of the students surveyed in one government study agree that all university students should be taught about sexual consent in freshers’ week – and that this training should be compulsory.
Over two-thirds of universities already offer consent training to students, even if it isn’t mandatory. Making consent courses mandatory is a simple way for universities to make their students feel safer on campus – but just offering this training is a great place to start.
However, some consent courses are out of touch with what it’s like to be a student today. The same study also found that very few universities teach students how to have “safe intimate and sexual relations online”.
And on top of this, it’s easy for consent training to make students feel patronised – or even offended. Some students have argued that hours-long in-person consent workshops just point out the obvious facts about consent, and make male students feel like they’re assumed to be predators.
But universities are communities as well as places of education. As Winchester SU trustee Jim Dickinson argues, consent courses should be just one part of introducing students to the behaviours expected of them, with topics like race and LGBTQ+ rights discussed in freshers’ week too.
Consent education already plays an important part in most universities’ efforts to make students feel safer on campus – but the kind of training available matters just as much as whether or not students receive it at all.
Active bystander training empowers students by showing them what they can do to prevent sexual violence on campus. It also makes students feel safer by showing them that their peers are able to recognise warning signs.
Research has found that male students at universities where bystander intervention programmes are offered are less likely to commit sexual harassment or assault, and are especially unlikely to perpetrate the worst kinds of offences.
After completing different kinds of bystander intervention training, students rate themselves as more likely to intervene when witnessing sexual harassment or assault, and report having more empathy for people who experience it.
Lots of UK universities are starting to catch on to the benefits of active bystander training: UCL, Imperial, Warwick, Manchester and Durham are just a handful of the institutions that offer it to students.
The benefits of active bystander training are clear, and good active bystander training always involves tips and tricks that students can start applying straight away.
The prevalence of campus sexual violence is a really complicated problem that will take a lot of work, effort and goodwill to solve – from staff and students alike.
But there are still lots of things that universities can do to make students feel safer around campus and in their university towns and cities.
In The Interview, our series of conversations with leaders at different UK universities, the topic of sexual violence and student safety often comes up.
Two of our interviewees – David Ingram from the University of Edinburgh, and Rachel Schaaf from Bath Spa University – have highlighted the benefits of working with Student Unions and student activists.
Universities have to make plans and find solutions that fit specific problems. The best way for them to do this is by listening to students about what they say they need to feel safe.