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The Unspoken Problem Of University Staff Abusing Their Students

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It's common knowledge that UK universities have a problem with sexual assault between students and that a toxic "lad culture" often prevails. But what is less well-known is the extent of sexual harassment of students by staff.

According to The Guardian, the scale of sexual abuse and harassment is comparable to the scandals involving Jimmy Savile and the Catholic church. Its investigation follows the high-profile case of student Allison Smith, a postgraduate student at the University of Sussex, whose lecturer boyfriend was convicted of assaulting her and allowed to continue teaching at the university.

The findings suggest that university staff all over the country have been abusing their power for their own sexual satisfaction, rarely with legal or even professional consequences, and often in plain sight.

Some cases dated back to the 1980s and 1990s but most are recent and many are ongoing, the newspaper reported.

Victims cited instances of verbal bulling, serial harassment, assault, sexual assault and rape. Most cases involved senior male academics, often professors, abusing and harassing the younger female PhD students they supervise, The Guardian reported.

Undergraduates and female academics also reported being assaulted; and there were also accusations of male-on-male harassment and an allegation of sexual assault by a female lecturer.

One student, who didn't report her experience, said: “My (much older) supervisor kept messaging me for naked photos of myself,” adding that when she refused he told her she "was probably going to get raped. He was very well liked, and I knew he would never be punished for it.”

Many accounts suggested universities have been failing in their duty of care to victims. One PhD student made a formal complaint after being raped by a senior member of staff, with whom she was in a relationship, said she felt powerless. “He is a renowned professor. He can do what he wants.”

A female member of staff also said she was asked to leave the university premises and suspended for three months after complaining to HR about a senior male colleague who abused her, because he accused her of making a false allegation.

Many victims said their harassers barely received punishment and many were allowed to keep their jobs or move to other universities without being disciplined or formally investigated. “The culture [in universities] is very sexualised. It’s very, very macho," said one respondent.

"Whenever complaints arise, they are covered up. In general society there’s been a shift in the way in which complaints of sexual misconduct are dealt with – in higher education, not so much.”

Jennifer Saul, a philosophy professor at the University of Sheffield and expert on sexual harassment in higher education, called the problem "systemic". She said victims are often afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation.

“When they do come forward, often they are brushed off or not believed. When they are believed, their allegations are still often dismissed as unprovable," Saul added. "Even when things are taken more seriously, harassers are generally allowed to leave quietly, which enables them to move some place else and do the same thing.”

The End Violence Against Women Coalition said something urgently needs to change in universities to stop senior male academics abusing their power and to ensure perpetrators are punished.

“We know this is happening to young women at universities across the country and they continue to be failed by the institutions in which they put their trust,” its co-director Rachel Krys told The Guardian .

“Our universities need to listen more to the women who are coming forward and telling these stories. They need to investigate properly when there is an allegation of abuse, and act quickly to protect all women from these perpetrators."