Reports of sexual violence against women at the university have soared, a Channel 4 News investigation has found. But the findings could be the tip of the iceberg
Winning a place at Cambridge feels like a dream for the lucky few plucked from thousands of applicants each year – not to mention their proud parents. But it’s a dream that can sour for some female undergraduates, both at Cambridge and universities across the country.
For the last six months, we have investigated violence against women on campus for Channel 4 News. Using Freedom of Information laws, we have discovered a shocking rise in allegations of sexual misconduct at British universities, with Cambridge – recently ranked the sixth best university in the world – reporting the second highest figures, behind the University of East Anglia (UEA).
Across the UK, there was an 82.5 per cent increase in reported incidents of rape and sexual assault at universities between 2017-18. At Cambridge, 165 allegations of rape or sexual assault were reported by students to university authorities between 2016 and April 2019.
The university introduced an anonymous reporting system in May 2017 to encourage students to come forward. But we spoke to several women who told us they have been sexually attacked while studying there – and feel let down.
One former student told her story on condition of anonymity. From a working-class background, she never dreamed of making it to such a prestigious institution. But during her time at Cambridge, a nightmare began. Another student walked her home from a nightclub and, after she invited him in, she says he attacked her.
“He forced himself on me and held me down while he raped me… I’d said no,” she recalls. “I told him to stop. I was trying to push him off. It felt like a terrible nightmare.”
She told her tutor but was “shocked” when he “said there was a page in the freshers’ guide that had some numbers on and I should look at that. It kind of made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal, like, you know, it’s fine.” Her complaint wasn’t recorded as rape, as it was before Cambridge’s current system and there was no formal disciplinary.
Unsatisfied, she went to the police – but claims the man’s college tipped him off that he was about to be arrested, enabling him to leave the premises. He was later arrested, but her case was dropped.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was scared knowing he was out there and that he could have known it was me [who reported him]. I was scared that I was in danger,” she recalls.
The student developed PTSD and felt unable to leave her room for lectures. She doesn’t believe Cambridge will be safe “until it takes responsibility for the actions of its students and starts prioritising the safety of women over its reputation”.
Cambridge’s senior pro-vice-chancellor, Professor Graham Virgo, told us: “We know how difficult it is for students to report incidents. That is why we make public the number of anonymous reports we receive. That is also why, two years ago, we launched our ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign to encourage awareness and reporting.
“I know from listening to students that no matter how well an investigation is handled, it can be an extremely difficult experience. We are doing everything we can to make sure students feel supported.”
Barrister Charlotte Proudman, a research fellow at Queens’ College Cambridge, has been working with female undergraduates who report having been sexually assaulted. She calls the university’s response to the woman “appalling” and says our investigation is “the tip of the iceberg” – even with the anonymous reporting system in place.
“Colleges have failed to investigate; the university has turned women away when they’ve gone along with either informal or formal complaints,” she says. “Often the consequence is that these complaints are swept under the carpet and women are not protected. These victims are not given the support they so desperately require.”
Shockingly, this is being replicated up and down the country. Our research points to an epidemic of sexual violence on campus.
We asked every UK university for its number of reported rapes and sexual assaults. Those which provided figures showed an alarming rise – from 65 in 2014 to 626 in 2018. In the last year alone there has been an 82.5 per cent increase in students reporting rape/sexual assault.
In total, over the last five years, there have been over 1,600 reports of rape or sexual assault made at universities. If you include harassment, that rises to 1,900, with the highest number at the UEA, then Cambridge and the University of Birmingham.
High-profile movements like MeToo may have led to an uptick in reporting. But Proudman suggests our figures are a serious underestimate: “I suspect it’s thousands. And I suspect part of the reason for the low figure is that many women are not aware of the reporting process.”
Many students are reluctant to involve the police. Some told us they are wary of not being believed, or nervous about standing up in court. Several said they feared having the contents of their phones downloaded and taken out of context.
Little wonder. In April, it was reported the CPS has covertly changed its policy for prosecuting rapes, with “weak” cases abandoned to boost prosecution “success” rates, instead of being pursued on merit. Women now have a 4 per cent chance of their case getting to court, compared with one in five (20pc) in 2014.
Birmingham University told us it had received 87 reports of sexual misconduct in five years, 14 of which were “formal allegations”. One current student says that, while she can’t fault them for support, she’s struggling to deal with what happened during her second week.
On a night out, the student was handed a free drink, which she believes was spiked. “My legs kept giving way. I was embarrassed that I kept falling over,” she says. “I was on my own and didn’t know what was going on.”
She recalls running outside, before finding herself in the back of a car with a man she didn’t know. Her description of what happened next is terrifying. “I remember him dragging me up the stairs. I woke up in a room I’d never seen before and I didn’t have any of my clothes on.”
Too shocked to go to the police, she visited a sexual assault clinic. But because she’d showered, any evidence had been destroyed.
She, and other women we spoke to, believe the availability of free alcohol and a culture of getting “black-out drunk” during Freshers’ Week is part of the problem. Where responsibility lies for keeping students safe is a matter for debate – one parents will recognise all too well. But many are clear that universities need to up their game.
Birmingham and the UEA told us that they have a zero-tolerance approach, encouraging students to report. Both emphasised that “misconduct” records may not indicate an actual assault has occured – with incidences of harassment also recorded. The universities also point out that students are able to detail historic cases, potentially inflating totals. Birmingham has refuted any suggestion that 87 incidents took place on campus, saying that “over the last five years the number of formal complaints relating to sexual assault was 14”.
Similarly, the number of formal complaints made to Cambridge over the three years was 12.
While representative body Universities UK acknowledges many are “making progress” with “an increase in disclosures”, they admit there is “more work to be done”.
“This is a pressing issue within the UK’s university student population of over two million and we have called on university leaders to provide active senior leadership,” they told us.
“Drinking culture is another area which we will be addressing through new guidance around initiation events and other risky behaviours which encourage excessive alcohol consumption.”
Charlotte Proudman thinks it’s heading one way.
“At some point there’s going to be a case in the High Court which says universities are actively and woefully breaching the Equality Act. Only then will the Government and educational institutions take notice,” she says. “Until then, we will continue to see a haphazard approach; women not being protected and perpetrators effectively able to continue sexually abusing them without any form of consequence – with impunity.”
Britain’s universities have been warned.
Cathy Newman’s report, Sexual Assault On Campus, will be on Channel 4 News at 7pm tonight.