‘I have been sexually harassed as a student and at work and later sacked someone for doing it’

A Welsh university vice chancellor has told how she was sexually harassed as a student and as a member of staff as she heads a team which aims to stop sex pests.

Professor Cara Aitchison, VC of Cardiff Metropolitan University, said sexual harassment is an issue for all universities. She kept quiet about her experience for 20 years and wants to ensure that is not the case in future.

“There are two issues. One is student to student sexual harassment, which we know has been an increasing problem, and then there is a separate issue of staff to student misconduct,” she said.

Read more:More than 80 British universities named on a website where students anonymously shared experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and misogyny.

Professor Aitchison added: “We know from research by the NUS and by the 1752 Group lobby group that the problem is more extensive than people imagine, but there is a lack of data.

“I have dismissed someone for sexual misconduct at one of the universities I have worked at.

“Sexual harassment has been an issue in every one of the universities I have worked in. I don’t know anyone for who this is not an issue or any women academics who have not experienced it as a student or member of staff.”

Talking about her own personal experience the vice chancellor described it as “typical”.

“I am very typical of cases coming to light. There are a number of risk factors. Women at universities are more at risk of sexual harassment than men and post graduate students are more at risk, probably because there is more one to one contact.

“I fell into that category. I did not report it. I did not tell anyone for 20 years. I also experienced sexual harassment as a young member of staff. This is not unusual. It is typical.”

Cardiff Metropolitan University does not use non disclosure agreements, which some institutions have used to silence complaints of sexual misconduct

Now that she leads a university herself she admitted it was hard for institutions to ban staff/student sexual relationships as it is within the law for consenting adults. But she believes strict guidelines and more awareness are needed in what is, by its nature, an “unequal power relationship”.

“There is a large amount of under reporting. That’s not surprising. We know sexual harassment is under reported in wider society and universities are a reflection of wider society.”

Professor Aitchison led a team at Universities UK, which represents more than 100 universities, which has now drawn up a code in an attempt to curb sexual harassment and “change the culture”.

The code, which universities are asked to sign up to, “strongly discourages” sexual relationships between staff and students.

It also instructs academics not to friend students on social media, other than professional networks like LinkedIn and to email via official accounts.

The code says any personal relationships must be disclosed or disciplinary action, including dismissal, could follow. Universities are also told they should not use non disclosure agreements (known as NDAs) to silence reports.

Some universities, including Cardiff Met already state on their websites that they don’t use NDAs in a move to “reassure students”.

“On staff student liaisons the issue is that banning them is problematic legally. Unless a student goes to university under 18. But the vast majority are over 18 and considered adults, so legally it is very difficult to ban relations between what could be seen to be consenting adults,” said Professor Aitchison.

“There are a small number of universities that have sought to ban such relationships.

“That is not what we are proposing in the guidance, but we strongly discourage sexual relationships. Where they do exist we set out the best course of action.

“This is trying to encourage a change of culture to one that is professional and more empowering to students.”

While sexual relationships between staff and students may not be illegal staff, as part of their contract, must work within the university’s policies. Breaking policies could be breach of contract.

Professor Aitchison said its was “widely, but quietly acknowledged” that sexual misconduct happens at universities and the guidance aims to make it more visible. Some research shows as many as 40% of students experience sexual harassment or misconduct from fellow students or staff.

She said there may be “pockets of abhorrent culture in some departments or among staff with out dated views still in 1989 not 2022” and “Some universities have tried to keep it quiet thinking it will damage their reputation”.

She said: “We are trying to create a culture where students feel empowered to report sexual harassment.

“At Cardiff Met there have been a few reports, but that does not mean we are complacent. Reports will increase with this guidance.

“There is a lack of data on sexual harassment at universities in Wales. It has not formed a discussion topic in Wales. There is a lack of data but I would say there is a very small number each year, not even in double figures. They will be the tip of the iceberg.

“We don’t really know the extent because of under reporting. We recommend universities collect more data.”

… and Wales Matters delivers the best of WalesOnline’s coverage of politics, health, education, current affairs and local democracy straight to your inbox.

Now more than ever this sort of journalism matters and we want you to be able to access it all in one place with one click. It’s completely free and you can unsubscribe at any time.

To subscribe, click here, enter your email address and follow the simple instructions.

How universities have responded

WalesOnline asked all universities in Wales what their policies on NDAs and allegations of sexual misconduct and staff/student relationships were. These are the responses we received.

Universities Wales

Universities Wales, which represents institutions here, said it is currently working on a sector position on NDAs which will be published in the next few weeks.

Cardiff University

Cardiff University does not use NDAs.

“The University does have rules on staff-student relationships as outlined in our Close Personal Relationships policy.

“We take all allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously. We have measures in place to investigate and act in cases of sexual misconduct. Students can raise concerns under the student complaints procedure directly with their school, college or department. Students may also make disclosures via a dedicated Disclosure Response Team.”

Swansea University

Swansea University does not use NDAs in relation to sexual misconduct investigations.

Staff are strongly advised against entering anything other than professional relationships with students.

“Our Dignity at Work and Study Policy describes process and practices for reporting sexual misconduct for students and staff.

“We have a front facing support tab on the main university website covering all forms of support for any experience students need help with, a team of trained sexual violence liaison officers to support students through the disclosure process and the decision-making choices and will be introducing a report and support online platform shortly together with launching a new sexual misconduct policy.”

University of South Wales

“The university does not use NDAs.

“The university has a code of conduct for colleagues regarding personal relationships. Any relationships must be disclosed and appropriate measures must be followed to ensure there are no conflicts of interest.

“The safety and welfare of our students, staff and the wider community is paramount – we are committed to a culture that is safe and positive for everyone and we are undertaking a variety of ongoing work in this area.

“A safeguarding policy, and associated processes, are in place and these are continually reviewed.

“We treat any allegation of misconduct seriously, and we are currently reviewing our reporting and investigative processes for both staff and student misconduct, which includes allegations of sexual misconduct, to ensure allegations are expeditiously and professionally investigated.

Cardiff Metropolitan University

Does not use NDAs.

Its policy says the university will not tolerate harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, victimisation, intimidation or bullying and will take such allegations extremely seriously.

“The university understands that this can be perpetrated by academic, professional, contracted, and temporary staff in their relations with students and can also occur between staff members. It can also occur between individuals whether or not they are in a relationship or have previously been in a relationship and individuals that have not previously been known to each other.

“The university is committed to developing a culture within the university community in which students and staff feel able to report acts of sexual misconduct.”

To get the latest email updates from WalesOnline click here


Leave a Comment