UCL’s Response to Sexual Misconduct Remains Riddled with Loopholes
*Trigger Warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault and harassment
“Before a system like Report and Support existed, whenever there was an issue, we were told, ‘go to your personal tutor for everything’. Three years later, when I got to know him better, my personal tutor told me, ‘I didn’t bother learning your names. I just called you the pretty one.’”
This was Jennifer’s experience, who is now completing her PhD at UCL.
The university appears to have come a long way since. In 2019, UCL launched an online tool, Report + Support, for staff and students to report instances of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. Before it, procedures were hazy, non-disclosure agreements used heavy-handedly, and police action was a student’s best bet at justice.
While the administration celebrates that, after two years of strategy group meetings, a system now exists, students remain frustrated over its complexity. An investigation by The Cheese Grater has uncovered that the inconsistency of UCL procedure, insufficient mitigative measures, and bureaucratic inefficiencies continue to undermine the experiences of sexual assault survivors.
After experiencing a traumatic event of a sexual nature, survivors are most likely to approach a party that they trust. This may not necessarily be the Students Union Advice Service or Dignity Advisors, the recommended points of contact for guidance on such incidents, but another student or a staff member such as a personal tutor, department head, or resident advisor, who may not be well-equipped to assist in such matters.
It is safe to assume that staff, who work closely with UCL administration, may be better qualified to signpost students to the correct services. Yet, while they are encouraged to familiarise themselves with UCL policy for reporting misconduct and the subsequent courses of action available, it is not mandatory for them to do so (with the exception of Dignity Advisors). This can limit their ability to support their constituent students through a difficult time and make informed recommendations (see page 3 for in-depth coverage). Thus, students’ key points of contact may be inadequate at helping them; for the ones that do know how to help, students may not know they exist, or may feel uncomfortable approaching them.
For this reason or otherwise, survivors may approach a peer with their disclosure. However, students only have the ‘Handling Disclosures’ subpage on the Report + Support website to rely on. Although it offers important advice on non-judgemental listening, it does not provide specific information on how to signpost in an informed manner; it only suggests submitting a report through the Report + Support website. Yet, signposting training for students is available — it is administered to all welfare officers on society committees at the start of their terms. But for students who experience sexual misconduct outside the society environment, welfare officers may not be the most appropriate point of contact.
The fundamental issue at hand is the absence of trained peer advocates. Most universities in the US have students specially trained as peer advocates that provide support and guidance to students who have experienced sexual harassment and misconduct. For instance, CAASHA (Campus Advocates Against Sexual Harassment and Assault) at Carleton College, SVR (Sexual Violence Response) Peer Advocates at Columbia University and SHARE (Sexual Health, Advocacy & Relationship Education) advocates at Reed College all undergo more than 35 hours of intensive training administered by third-party organisations to get state-certified as sexual assault advocates. Students at UCL and most other UK universities are, on the other hand, arguably belittled, preventing them from actively combatting the pralevent rape culture.
Hence, making signposting information accessible to all students on UCL’s webpages can not only help them better support each other but it can also dispel confusion and misinformation about university procedures. Moreover, peer advocates can prove more accessible to the student population due to the minimised age difference, rendering the reporting process less intimidating and isolating.
How existing procedure fails those who choose to report
In an interview with The Cheese Grater, Professor Sara Mole, Gender Envoy for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee, noted: “If you are on a three-year degree, and you experience serious sexual misconduct in your first year, this incident can colour your whole experience at university because it is not going to be sorted out in a month. It’s going to take time”.
Explicit time limits have not been set for the various processes of informal or formal resolution as they depend on the severity of the case, the person being investigated (whether the reported party is a student or staff) and how long ago the incident took place. However, the points of contact listed in the summary in Figure 1 can take days, or even weeks, to respond to emails requesting clarification of procedure, availability for a meeting, or progress updates. Not only can this lack of maximal time allotments exacerbate an already distressing experience, but it can also dissuade students from pursuing further action.
Section 7 of the Prevention of Bullying, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy poses yet another obstacle. One of its policies states that for outcomes of formal complaints and disciplinary cases “there may be limits to the information about the consequences to the Reported Party that can be shared with the Reporting Party”. While it also affirms that key information will be shared “to minimise any adverse effects in accessing their work or study environment”, that information remains limited to whether the complaint has been upheld or not and whether the reported party has been dismissed or expelled.
This policy opens a problematic loophole – only adverse effects in accessing the “work or study environment” are considered as an exception. Yet, in cases where the reported incident takes place in Halls or SU societies’ spaces or events, adverse effects in accessing the reporting party’s living or extracurricular environment, which do not constitute a work or study setting, may not be deemed as exceptions.
In a culture rife with victim-blaming, coming forward with one’s story and pursuing formal action is itself a courageous act, and may prove crucial to a survivor’s efforts to gain closure. Moreover, engaging with societies’ spaces and events is a key part of the university experience for a student. The ambiguity in the extent to which information can be withheld can impede these efforts and evoke further distress.
With loopholes as such embedded in current policy dictates, students may ultimately feel helpless by the inflexibility of the system.
The faults with existing mitigative training
Aside from the inefficiencies and murkiness of reporting sexual misconduct, the administration, along with the Students’ Union, fails to sufficiently prevent this behaviour in the first place.
For an average UCL student, training that is available consists of three separate programmes. Yet, most students would likely be able to name only one of them: the Active Bystander Programme. Launched in 2015, this compulsory training programme aims to tackle bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct and explains how to safely intervene when these behaviours arise. However, several systemic oversights suggest that the implementation of the program may be superficial rather than constructive.
Firstly, while the definitions of bullying and harassment are accompanied with tasks that demonstrated their practical uses through interactive real-life examples, the sub-section on sexual misconduct features just four sentences and one interactive flashcard that displays the definition of consent. This lack of elaboration may be explained by the other two optional training modules, I Heart Consent and Tackling Sexual Violence, which cover topics pertaining to sexual misconduct in greater detail. However, they are scarcely promoted or encouraged among the wider student population.
Further, because these immersive exercises, or the live facilitated session, do not entail graded marking of any sort, one can complete the training without getting a single answer right. Also, despite it being labelled ‘mandatory’, there are no academic or disciplinary penalties for failing to complete the program. Ironically, the cavalier and lenient nature of the self-directed online program is thus undermining the gravity of the very behaviours it is aiming to tackle.
In an interview with The Cheese Grater, Anya Esmail-Yakas, President of UCL Gender and Feminism Society, criticised these programs for “not being enough.” She said, “administering an online course seems like UCL has ticked the box of requirements and thought ‘okay we’ve solved this problem’… [But] in reality, that is not the case at all because issues like misogyny and racism are embedded in our cultures, and have existed since before students enter university. An online course is not going to undo the systemic oppression that has taken place for decades.” Instead, Esmail-Yakas suggests holding mandatory regular and in-person sensitivity training for all students. Initiating reflective discussions among students who would normally never think or talk about such issues is key – having those important, often uncomfortable conversations is the only way to change viewpoints and behaviours.
A long road ahead
The shortcomings identified above suggest a structural failure to support survivors of sexual misconduct and prevent future such incidents. What’s worse is that this system is likely to remain flawed for a long time due to UCL’s bureaucratic inefficiencies.
For instance, the issues highlighted in this article overlap significantly with the findings of the Report + Support Task and Finish group, which was created to investigate the effectiveness of reporting procedures in instances of racial bullying and harassment. It took the group six months to investigate and draft a report, and another four months to present it to the Academic Board for approval.
A sense of urgency seems lacking – while the administration identifies and mends its shortcomings in a tediously inefficient manner, students continue to suffer with no safety net to fall back on. However, the underestimation of the issue at hand raises a significant question – can the onus truly be put on universities when the UK government fails to prioritise sexual harassment as an endemic issue? It was only after cases like Sarah Everard’s murder grabbed media attention that the UK government launched a new and improved strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.
Compared to the historic Title IX amendment in the US, which brought sexual violence in the education community to the forefront of federal legislation, the UK government has failed to set similar accountability measures in place for universities defaulting on protecting and defending students from sexual assault incidents and perpetrators. While the Office for Students (OfS) and Universities UK (UUK) have published guidelines and recommendations for robust procedures for tackling harassment and sexual misconduct, they are just that – a set of recommendations. Neither of these overarching organisations legally require universities to comply.
Not only does this prevent a sense of responsibility for UK universities to install comprehensive measures, but it also leads to considerable disparities in university reporting and support policies around the country, leaving some student communities worse off than others. For instance, member institutions of University of London, which share their campus spaces and academic modules with each other, have starkly different reporting and support systems in place. Students from these institutions reside in close proximity to each other, often in the same accommodation, and interact on a regular basis. In an instance where the reporting party and the reported party are from different UoL colleges, the deficiency of a coordinated and interconnected response prevents any disciplinary action from taking place (see page 5 for in-depth coverage).
Today, UCL appears to be championing a reactive approach to sexual assault – solving problems as they arise with minimal efforts towards prevention and systematic reform. What it desperately requires is a trauma-informed and survivor-focused strategy. It needs an approach that encourages responsible behaviour; it needs a community that isn’t afraid to call harmful actions out; it needs a simple, transparent system that trusts the reporting parties. At the current pace, these changes will take years to manifest. UCL has the resources and expertise to protect its students from sexual violence, harassment and trauma. What it lacks is the drive to do so in a way that works.
A summary of UCL procedure
Note: This is simply a summary of UCL procedures, written in an accessible and simplified format. It is, by no means, exhaustive (or claiming to be) and subject to greater detail. Please refer to the embedded links for UCL’s official policies before taking an action.
If you, or someone you know, experienced a traumatic incident, there are multiple routes that exist for reporting, pursuing disciplinary action and accessing support.
To file a report, or access support while reporting, you can contact the nearest staff member. They can be a personal tutor, department head, resident advisor etc. If you feel more comfortable contacting staff that you do not know personally, you can reach out to the Student Mediator, Ruth Siddall (responsible for informal resolution and guiding the involved parties through UCL’s reporting procedures), Students Union Advice Service (a UCL-independent unbiased confidential advice service on UCL procedures), or Dignity Advisors (who are uniquely trained to provide confidential information and advice on next steps). For first-year undergraduates, Student Advisors are present for confidential listening and guidance. If you’d rather speak to a student, the ones best equipped to help are SU Student Officers and Welfare Officers of a society.
It is important to note that UCL can only take formal disciplinary action on reports about incidents that have taken place on campus or UCL property and involve a UCL person. While you can still report other instances e.g., being harassed at an off-campus location by a UoL student, UCL can only provide support in those cases, or direct you to the MET police, which includes counselling, mitigating/extenuating circumstances and more to minimise disruption to learning and mental wellbeing.
After submitting a named report, someone will contact you within 5 working days to explain possible next steps. You will also be offered support in the form of immediate care or counselling. You can also choose to pursue informal or formal action.
Informal action involves contacting the department, who can then initiate a discussion with the reported party so that they can be made aware of their actions, given a chance to alter their behaviour, avoid spaces frequented by you, or move halls, among other measures. If you do not feel comfortable contacting the department head, you can also email Ruth Siddall.
You can also choose to pursue formal disciplinary action against the reported party. If your case for formal action is upheld, penalties levied may include temporary suspension, permanent expulsion, exclusion from SU spaces, and/or a monetary fine. The procedure for that is as follows:
- You must contact the student casework team via Report + Support or email to send you a formal case form. It is highly recommended to contact the Students’ Union Advice Service for assistance with the form.
- The form requires you to write a detailed statement of the event as well as attach any evidence that you can. Evidence can include:
- Eye-witness accounts
- Names of potential witnesses
- Diary entries, text/social media messages or emails mentioning the event
- Video or audio recordings (covert recordings will not be accepted – they constitute a type of misconduct themselves)
- After submitting the form, the casework team will review it and investigate your claims.
- If your formal action case is upheld, a disciplinary hearing will be set. The disciplinary panel comprises three individuals: a Chair (UCL’s Vice-Provost (Education & Student Experience) or their nominee), a member of UCL academic staff and a student officer of the Students Union. It is important that all three members do not know either party, or any witnesses, personally.
- The reported party will be made aware of the alleged offence and asked to provide a written statement with accompanying evidence as well.
- The Disciplinary Panel is given the documents 5 days prior to the hearing.
At the hearing, both parties will be present but will not interact, except in some cases such as sexual harassment where both parties would not be in the same room. You are allowed to bring a ‘friend’ to accompany you for emotional and mental support for the entirety of the hearing. Details of the procedure of the hearing can be found on pages 13 and 14 of the student disciplinary code and procedure.
- After the hearing, the panel will deliberate over the case – this can range anywhere from fifteen minutes to two weeks.
- Once a decision has been made, it will be conveyed to both parties. There are limits to the extent conveyed to the reporting party. If unsatisfied with the outcome, only the reported party can appeal the decision made.
As this process may last a month or more, you can access support meanwhile.
- You can contact the Crime Prevention and Personal Safety Advisor, Darren Watts, via email for precautionary safety measures, such as security alert devices, using the SafeZone app etc.
- You can request same-day appointments with the Student Support and Wellbeing Services for assistance with mental health concerns during the procedure, which can include special academic adjustments, accommodation adjustments if you are residing in halls, access to longer-term psychological services (within or outside UCL) etc. You can submit an enquiry through askUCL or call +44 (0)2076790100.
In cases where a report has been made to the police before UCL, procedure differs. It is at their discretion whether UCL wants to continue their own investigation alongside the criminal investigation. However, meanwhile, they are required to offer you interim assistance in the form of mental, emotional and/or academic support. They can also levy interim measures against the reported party, which can include suspension while investigation is pending etc.
By Rusheen Bansal
This article appeared in CG Issue 82