Oxford University 'must investigate sexual harassment by staff on students' amid fears of unreported cases


16 JUNE 2018 • 9:00PM The Telegraph


Oxford University must urgently investigate sexual violence and harassment against students by staff, one of Britain’s top lawyers has said, as new figures reveal that five dons have been disciplined over their behaviour in the last two years.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, head of Mansfield College Oxford, warned the problem could be more than twice as bad as the figures suggest, and urged Oxford to launch an inquiry.

An unpublished report written by Baroness Kennedy, obtained by The Telegraph under Freedom of Information laws, recommended last July that a review of staff discipline was taken “very soon”.

The report, commissioned by Oxford, criticised secretive drinking societies and so-called ‘crew dates’, where sports teams of opposite genders play drinking games over dinner in a restaurant.

It warned that “tribal loyalties” in Oxford’s historic college system “make it very hard to complain about the conduct of a student colleague”.

In her report, Baroness Kennedy also highlighted that “creating cultural change inside ancient, elite, academic institutions is not easy”.

On Saturday night Baroness Kennedy told The Telegraph that the university’s structure allowed individual colleges to under-report sexual crimes, and welcomed a new centralised reporting service that will be launched in October.

“I’m a lawyer who’s worked in this field for most of my life, and with all those scandals - the church, children’s homes, the BBC and Jimmy Savile - institutions are tempted to put their own reputation ahead of the allegations, and dealing with something that has an impact on the lives of individuals,” she said.

“They try and find ways of burying it and dealing with it in a secretive way. We know this, it’s about silencing the complaint. We can’t have that.”

Using new statistics from Oxford's student harassment hotline, the report revealed that a quarter of callers were male - again thought to be underreported - and that “people with a disability were much more likely to be the victim of sexual violence than others”.

Among the most serious revelations was that many “raised concerns about sexually abusive conduct between professors/tutors/supervisors/teachers and their students” to the inquiry, but had not reported it to the authorities.

“I think the university and colleges should look at this issue very soon as it is allied to the question of culture within the institution,” Baroness Kennedy wrote in July 2017.

“If senior people are behaving badly, why should we expect students to behave differently?”

Although measures will be introduced in October to tackle student-on-student violence, the university said that, a year later, it had still not begun a review of staff disciplinary procedures.

On Saturday night, Baroness Kennedy said she would take the matter to a meeting of Oxford college heads on Thursday, and recommend that the university “move to an inquiry” on harassment policy that “has to be strengthened”.

Figures obtained by The Telegraph show that students made complaints about eight staff members over the last two academic years, but Baroness Kennedy said the true number could be more than twice as high.

The report’s conclusions have prompted the establishment of a new sexual violence support service in Oxford, which will advise victims of assault and harassment of their options, including reporting crimes to the police.

Oxford Student Union has plans for a ‘charter mark’ system, which will provide benefits such as early booking for freshers’ fair and discounts on printing services to student societies that perform well on a range of criteria, including tackling sexual violence.

A spokesman for Oxford University said: “The University treats sexual harassment as a serious disciplinary offence which can lead to instant dismissal of staff. All cases are investigated thoroughly, and students are advised and supported throughout the complaints process. The new support service will guide students on making complaints against staff, as well as other students.

"The University’s sexual harassment policy is regularly reviewed, most recently in April 2017. The disciplinary process for students will be considered next term. The outcome will help inform the next review of the process for complaints against staff.”