When Maria* was raped by a PhD student in 2020, she did everything she could to get help. Over a few days, she informed the police, her Oxford college, and the university itself, telling and re-telling her story.
Nothing happened, she says. The police dropped their investigation due to a lack of evidence, and Maria, 22, claims university proctors never initiated an internal investigation or even informed her that it was an option.
In the months that followed, she developed PTSD. Memory problems and anxiety made focusing impossible, and she struggled to work. Eventually, she says the head of her college told her that she would have to suspend her studies if she could not keep up. She agreed to take a year out.
“Suspending because I was raped feels very unfair,” Maria tells VICE. “Suspension is expensive, it's traumatic, it rips you away from the people that you care about, your routine, and the life that you've built for yourself.”
A year on, Maria says she still isn’t sure whether her disclosures even counted as a formal report, because she found the university procedures so opaque. She doesn’t know where the alleged perpetrator is now.
Stories like Maria’s demonstrate how difficult it can be to report sexual violence to a university. Complex procedures can stop survivors from sharing their experiences. Sometimes, they can go through a lengthy, draining process, only to find out that it didn’t even constitute making an official report.
This means that many universities are failing to keep accurate records of sexual violence on campus, resulting in case numbers that are disproportionately low – or even nil.
Six UK universities (Bournemouth, City, Glasgow Caledonian, Leeds Trinity, London Met and Queen Margaret) declared they had received zero reports of sexual violence in the last three years, according to exclusive freedom of information data obtained by VICE.
“The fact that some universities have received no reports doesn't suggest there is no sexual harassment at that university,” says Jess Asato, the head of policy at Safelives, a UK domestic abuse charity. “It means that they have failed to get to grips with this as an issue that requires full organisational cultural change.”
In March, a survey found that 97 percent of 18- to 24-year-old women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment. It doesn’t disappear when you step on campus: a 2018 study found that 70 percent of female students experienced sexual violence, but only 6 percent reported it.
Soma Sara, founder of Everyone’s Invited, a campaign to tackle rape culture, finds the number of universities with no reported incidences worrying. “We’ve found that sexual violence and rape culture is prevalent across all university campuses in the UK… This is happening in halls, on campus, in clubs on university student nights, even in the library. It’s really widespread.”
In one week in April, over 1,000 university students submitted their own accounts of sexual violence to Everyone’s Invited. Universities named in the survivor testimonies include two that told VICE they had received zero reports of sexual violence in the last three years: Glasgow Caledonian and City, University of London.
Later, City told us they were aware “instances of harassment are underreported generally, including at universities”. Both universities said they take sexual violence very seriously, and encourage survivors to contact them immediately for support.
Glasgow Caledonian also told VICE: "Our team of First Responders is in place to provide confidential, caring and timely support to those affected by gender-based and sexual violence. Our award-winning campaign against gender-based violence, Erase the Grey, has been adopted by other universities across the UK and Police Scotland. Our commitment is underpinned by a robust policy framework and supported with resources for students as well as staff signposted on campus and on our website.”
At the other end of the spectrum, our FOI data shows that six UK universities received over 100 reports. Last year, Cardiff University recorded more reports of sexual violence than every university in Scotland combined.
Experts, activists, and survivors of sexual violence say this does not mean there is more sexual violence at Cardiff. Instead, they explain that universities with low levels of reports often have confusing procedures that discourage reporting, leaving survivors without help, and offenders unpunished.
Sara says that there are many personal and institutional barriers that stop people from coming forward, which means the number of reports collected by a university often falls far short of the number of actual incidents.
“It’s stigmatised to such an extreme extent that people don't feel able to speak about their experiences, or report them,” she says. “When they do, they're often invalidated and they're told that their experience isn't true.”
Maddie*, 22, says she was repeatedly raped by her then-partner while attending the University of Manchester.
When she reported it to university authorities, she says that they “really emphasised how this was going to take a long time, how I was going to have to cooperate closely with them and how difficult it would be for me.” To her, it “felt like they were trying to dissuade me from making a report at all”.
Maddie waited 10 months for a university hearing. When it eventually came around, it was traumatic. She said: “My supporter from Rape Crisis asked [the alleged perpetrator] simply if he’d heard me say ‘no’. He said 'Yes, but that she was always like that.’”
After a 10-minute deliberation, the panel unanimously decided there had been a miscommunication between the parties, and that no misconduct had taken place. Maddie said: “It’s still unbelievable, even after all this time, the cruelty of everyone involved… in about as much time as the rape itself took, they managed to strip even more of my humanity away from me.”
The University of Manchester told VICE that it has invested heavily in support for survivors since 2017 and are training all student-facing staff in responding to reports of sexual violence.
Likewise, Maria’s college at Oxford said: “We take allegations of sexual harassment and violence extremely seriously and offer extensive support to students who report them.” The University of Oxford added: “Students are advised on their options, including how to make a complaint, and offered a range of support by the University Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service.”
Experts warn that universities that do not keep an accurate records of sexual violence or discourage reporting in the first place are likely to underestimate the scale of the problem.
John Edmonds and Eva Tutchell, the authors of Unsafe Spaces: Ending Sexual Abuse in Universities, estimate that “over 50,000 cases of serious sexual abuse and harassment will occur” across UK campuses in this year alone. Some universities “hide behind low numbers of reports”, they add, “and say, ‘Look, we've only had two reports, it can't be a big problem’.”
A handful of universities acknowledged to VICE that they knew the actual number of reports of sexual violence was higher than their FOI figures. They gave various reasons for this, including that they had “no one formal place to record these types of disclosure” or that they “didn't record informal reports”.
Aberystwyth University, which received only three reports of sexual violence in the last three years, said in their response: “It is likely that students would report any allegations of sexual assault, abuse and violence directly to the police, rather than to the university.”
But according to Maddie, reporting to the police can actually be more daunting, she said: “I’ve never reported [the alleged perpetrator] to the police, I wouldn’t be able to stand such an awful process.”
Aberstwyth later added: “On the rare occasion that serious complaints are made, we deal with those with the utmost sensitivity and care, irrespective of whether a victim has chosen to report the matter to the police.”
Edmunds and Tutchell think the reason universities don’t receive many formal reports comes down to a lack of support for survivors. While researching their book, they found that “less than one quarter of universities actually have specialist staff, trained in sexual violence and sexual abuse issues”.
“If you make a report,” they explain, “it's not necessarily going to someone who is really understanding.”
Our analysis found that universities that actively encourage reporting receive much higher levels of reports. In 2020, the University of Brighton introduced a system to allow students to report their experiences online and anonymously. They received 88 reports in 2020, compared to 13 in 2018. The well-advertised, simple and supportive tools they use are similar to those implemented by Cardiff University.
A Cardiff spokesperson said the high number of reports at the university “reflects the proactive measures we’ve put in place to ensure reporting is easy and our support service is accessible to all students”.
Many students disclosing may experience more than one incident or type of abuse, the spokesperson said, adding: “It’s important to stress that we record each individual incident that a student discloses, or a staff member discloses on their behalf, rather than counting the number of students.” Its figures also include historic incidents or ones that occurred off campus and may include duplications as a result of counting both anonymous and identified disclosures.
“Our overall sense is that there are some individual universities and colleges that are doing well, and there are others that aren't,” says Nicola Dandridge, the CEO of the Office for Students. “It's that patchiness which is so unfair from the perspective of the student because if they happen to go to a university or college which is not good, they’re potentially exposed to danger compared to a student who goes to another university.”
In April, the Office for Students released a statement of expectations for all UK universities and colleges, which says students and staff must be supplied transparent, accessible information on the reporting process and what to expect from the disciplinary procedure.
It is the first time a regulator has set clear standards for the handling of sexual violence in UK universities. Dandridge says if the standards are not met, the Office for Students is prepared to take regulatory action.
For survivors like Maria and Maddie, this has come too late – their university experience has been irrevocably marked by their experience of sexual violence. And this is what’s at stake, Tutchell and Edmonds warn: “That's the risk – [that] another cohort of students is going to suffer this misery.”
*names changed to protect the survivors’ anonymity
Update on 27/5/21: This piece has been updated to include comment from Cardiff and Glasgow Caledonian.
Update on 3/6/21: After publication, Bath Spa University told VICE that it had misinterpreted the FOI request and that it is aware of over 50 reports of sexual violence over the last three years. The headline and copy has been corrected to reflect this.