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How universities are tackling sexual violence

Graham Towl

Professor Graham Towl

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Durham University & Chair, SVTF
Durham University
Group of students walking

 

 

Sexual crime in society is significantly under-reported. Within criminal justice services this is widely understood to be a fundamental public health problem. We know this to be a global problem with concerns raised in North American universities about sexual violence as documented in the film The Hunting Ground’.

The Universities UK conference held in London earlier this week addressed this challenging issue. A number of themes emerged. One such theme was around the question of why universities should engage in this area of work. It is surely axiomatic that we would take steps to ensure the health and well-being of our students. Given that we know of marked under-reporting we have a civic duty to ensure that any students who are survivors receive support and are empowered to work with us in coming to decisions that are best for them.​

At an institutional level, there is an opportunity for us to contribute to addressing the wider societal problems of prevention and support. If we allow this latent problem to go largely unchecked, many of our students may not realise their full personal potential, surely the antithesis of what we would want as a university community.

Another key focus was on practical steps that need to be taken. One starting point for universities would be the auditing of how we currently deal with student reports of sexual violence. And this involves more than simply looking at what is written down in terms of policies and procedures, important though that is. It involves hearing the voices of those who have made such reports.

All of this needs resourcing and it is important to ensure that the finances are made available to invest in this area of student support. Universities that start to grapple with this challenging area are most likely to receive an increase in reporting levels. Although at one level this is, of course, a distressing confirmation of a problem, at another level it may be seen as a problem surfaced which can then be addressed. Indeed, higher reporting levels to universities against a backdrop of heightened awareness may be viewed as improved trust from our students and an opportunity for us to work with them in addressing this difficult area.

For me, probably the key message from the day was about the importance of us as university communities talking about the problems of sexual violence and then taking actions.

But what actions can universities sensibly take? In terms of prevention, educational programmes on bystander interventions, consent workshops and student safety talks by local police all may have a role to play. In terms of support services, clear reporting procedures are key. Universities may very well benefit from having such specialist reporting processes and procedures. Staff and student leader training in how to deal with disclosures may be helpful too.

At Durham University we set up a Sexual Violence Taskforce to review our approach to this challenging area. Our starting point was to bring together stakeholder communities – both internally and externally – to the university and to listen to the experiences of those involved in such work and, in particular, to hear views on what changes we needed to make. We also commissioned a rapid evidence assessment of research in the area of sexual violence at universities.

Concurrent to our work in policy development, we commissioned disclosure training for staff and also supported further educational interventions for our students which were student-led through our Students’ Union. Additionally we have significantly increased the resources for our partnership with our local rape crisis centre to provide support for students and staff on campus.

At Durham we will continue to address this challenging area and would welcome working with universities and Student Unions across the sector in partnership to tackle this together.

The presentation given by Professor Graham Towl at the Universities UK conference can be found on Durham University’s Sexual Violence Task Force website.


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