Below the cloak of euphoria that comes with joining university exists a deep-rooted issue: sexual violence. Universities are too often failing to protect their students, leaving them to fight the battle themselves. Reporter Elysia Harvey meets the tenacious faces behind student campaign ‘Protect Warwick Women’ currently protesting for change.
Sexual violence at universities has always been a topic of concern – if you simply type these words into Google, you’ll be met with: ‘failing’, ‘inadequate’, ‘silenced’.
Data from the Office of National Statistics has revealed that 11.6% of the female population and 4.2% of the male population, both categorised as full-time university students, have suffered from sexual assault in the last year.
When you compare this to those who are employed adults (3.2% of the female population and 0.8% of the male population) the figures are staggering.
These stats do not include people in shared residences, meaning those living in student halls were not accounted for – worryingly, such percentages would likely be much higher if they were.
But where and how are these universities going wrong to make numbers so high? Warwick University has been placed under the microscope of scrutiny as somewhat of a case study for the apparent failures of the UK education system to protect its students against sexual violence.
Walking towards the Warwick University campus piazza, tiled circles encompass one another sitting centrally.
They are surrounded by the tall walls of the teaching buildings and a mass of gathering students, it seems to signify unity, a bond between the educator and the educated.
But then there’s a sign: ‘Our bodies are worth more than the money they provide you’ – and suddenly, the bond envisioned is shattered.
The protest has been organised by students to demand a safer campus environment or, as they aptly put it, the bare minimum.
Students stood together bravely and in solidarity, hand-in-hand, sharing their experiences.
Sheer dedication and belief in their cause has meant that camping on cold grounds and having pot noodles for dinner has become their normality and will continue to be until all their demands are met.
Is it right that students are having to live in these conditions and fight so hard for university protection?
The fight is coming from the outside and forcing its way inwards, rather than the central governing body implementing it from the beginning.
The infamous 2018 incident of the ‘Rape Chat’ scandal, which exposed misogynistic, violent and racist messages between male students attending the university, was one of the first highly publicised incidents that snowballed a conversation on the way sexual violence is handled at Warwick.
One of the messages read: ‘Sometimes it’s just fun to go wild and rape 100 girls.’
The uncertainty of safety and a high expectation of consequence was lingering in the air after these frightening conversations circulated across the UK.
Two participants of the online group chat were suspended for 10 years; this was lowered to 12 months upon appeal but following public outcry it was ultimately revealed they would not be returning.
Whether this was personal choice or a forceful hand from the university has not been clarified; what this did bring into question about the education system as a whole, however, is whether disciplinary processes are sometimes only substantial when there is high coverage and a nationwide response.
If this thought is to be true, it’s concerning how many injustices may slip under the radar of silence.
It bodes the question: What would have happened had this group chat not been leaked to the press?
‘Report and Support’ is an online tool that was set up by Warwick after the scandal, where students could report incidents anonymously and be put in touch with an advisor.
Laila Ahmed, a law student from Hertfordshire who works with the network, explains its ‘brilliance’ in the way it can help students, but that lack of awareness of its existence is its downfall.
The 18-year-old, who spoke about this issue at the protest, said: “I have always been quite an open advocate for the fight against sexual violence at Warwick.
“After discussing it on my Instagram, I received countless messages about people’s personal situations and their helplessness in not knowing where to turn or how to get the help.
“It was really overwhelming – all I could do was signpost them in the right direction, which is actually something the university should be doing regularly.
“If the help is out there but victims are not aware of it, that help becomes meaningless.”
Importantly, this is not an issue isolated to the University of Warwick.
A report by Revolt Sexual Assault revealed that only 6% of students who had experienced sexual assault or harassment at university reported it, with 30% explaining they simply did not know how.
These universities have a duty of care to be protective, informative, and sensitive– in failing to highlight their support options, they are simultaneously failing in all three of those aspects… at the expense of victims.
Lizzie Keen, another young student of Warwick who attended the protest, weighs in on why she believes it’s happening.
She said: “I think there was a lot that led up to it – there seems to be a horrible pattern where everyone knows someone who has been sexually assaulted during their time at university.
“I have a friend who was sexually assaulted by a male student who lives below her and every day that she leaves her flat she has to go past their kitchen.
“She’s terrified she is going to run into him and faces panic attacks constantly.
“These are university residences which means the University has power to act; I know she feels let down in terms of support and action.
“The problem is, they deal with some cases, but they just don’t deal with enough.
“I think people are exhausted of falling onto deaf ears, and so they are creating more and more sound.”
Warwick University have released a statement in response to the protest.
They said: “Over the last few weeks, we have met Protect Warwick Women (PWW) on numerous occasions to discuss a detailed list of ideas they have proposed to address concerns over safety and support.
“We’ve welcomed their feedback and have been working with them to consider each and every proposal to see if and how they could be delivered.
“Of the ‘demands’ PWW originally outlined, we were pleased to agree to the vast majority of them.”
They added: “We have listened to them, discussed their ideas at length and made a number of changes as a result.”
This type of protesting is also happening across the country.
The creation of the page ‘Everyone’s Invited’ this year – an open and anonymous forum in which people tell their sexual violence experiences, many naming the university it occurred in – seems to have sparked an uproar to the commonality of this type of abuse.
The website has received over 10,000 complaints.
The Higher Education regulator, Office for Students, will publish new guidance in the upcoming weeks asking institutions to take more responsibility for protecting their students with ‘robust’ reporting procedures, as well as bystander and consent training for staff and students.
In their statement, the OFS made clear that they would use their enforcement powers where ‘universities and colleges do not have robust, fair and effective complaints procedures in relation to harassment and sexual misconduct’.
Perhaps this is the difficult beginning of a hopeful end, but this sadly remains an uncertain prospect.