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Universities are failing to tackle rape culture on campus, students say

·4-min read

Students at a sit-in protest over sexual misconduct at Warwick University that is entering its ninth week have said universities are still failing to tackle rape culture on campus.

Student group Protect Warwick Women has been camping in tents outside the student union building since March to protest over what they see as the university’s failure to tackle an “ingrained” problem of rape culture and sexual harassment on campus.

“I think the occupation is a clear physical symbol of ongoing resistance,” said protester Brin Arnold, a first-year student of computer science. “We’re trying to make it apparent to students that the dialogue is very much ongoing, and also make it apparent to the university that we’re not satisfied with their response.”

The students are having to balance their protest, which started during the Easter break, with lectures and exams, as well as sheltering from the rain in their flimsy tents, but say they have been overwhelmed with the support they have received from the student body.

“The amount of people who have come forward, women telling us they feel more confident speaking about their story, people saying they’re educating themselves and their friends,” said protester Cai Kennedy. “That’s really why I’m in it, because we’ve made a huge change in that respect.”

The university has stopped all communication with the group and asked them to leave the site, but the students are adamant that they will remain until more of their demands have been met.

In particular, they want further training for campus security on how to respond to reports of sexual assault on campus and student input on staff training on the issue, although they have welcomed some action from the university in recent weeks, such as free rape alarms in the student union and bystander training for students.

In 2018, a “rape chat” scandal at the university prompted outrage among students and earlier this year the university faced criticism for its decision to allow a student who groped a woman on campus to continue attending the university to complete his studies. “Ultimately, once we leave, we have little to no leverage,” said Arnold.

In a statement, Warwick University said although it disagreed with the group’s approach, it “deserves credit for rightly challenging us on a number of important issues, and for identifying areas for improvement”.

“We have listened to them, discussed their ideas at length, and made a number of changes as a result. However, we’ve reached a point where we believe the best way forward is now to work directly with the students’ nion and the student advisory group on implementing the improvements we’ve agreed, rather than engaging in continued discussions with PWW,” the statement read.

Last week university regulator the Office for Students (OfS) published guidance on how institutions should deal with sexual misconduct on campus, urging them to employ more robust reporting procedures and increased mental health support.

But some students and campaign groups worry that the guidance will have little impact in practice and say more needs to be done to hold universities accountable.

“There already are guidelines on this that have been around for years. The Universities UK guidelines have been around since 2016 and very few universities are following those. So who’s to say that they’re going to follow this new guidance, even though I know they’re increasing sanctions?” said Josie Hart of Reclaim the Campus.

The campaign group of students and recent graduates has reviewed the sexual misconduct polices at more than 40 UK universities and will be releasing a summary of its recommendations in June. They say sexual violence has become “a fact of university life” and universities do not have the resources in place to deal with it.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said the guidelines “provide a clear and consistent set of standards to prevent and respond” to sexual harassment and misconduct, and it is now for all registered institutions to implement them.

“Over the next year we will examine how universities and colleges respond to our expectations. As part of this process, we will consider options for connecting the statement directly to our conditions of registration,” Dandridge said.

Discussions about how to tackle sexual misconduct in higher education have increased in recent weeks, after the Everyone’s Invited initiative, which saw hundreds of students share their stories of abuse and harassment at schools online.

Hart said: “Lots of universities are starting to review their policy, but it should go further than just protecting their reputation. There’s a risk universities will start putting forward new policies and new resources just for the sake of showing themselves in a good light in the conversation. But will it actually infiltrate into rape culture on campus?”