Students accused of sexual misconduct are being treated very differently depending on where they are at university, new research has revealed.
A survey of Britain’s leading Russell Group universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – found little consistency in the way rape and other serious allegations were dealt with.
While some colleges instruct independent investigators to carry out detailed reviews, others leave it up to their own staff to adjudicate on the matter.
Complainants at some establishments are allowed legal representation, while others elsewhere are not.
Rape allegations at some universities handled no differently ‘from that of stealing a library book’
No one policy is the same among the 24 institutions, and researchers have warned that at some universities, determining the veracity of a rape allegation is “no different from that of stealing a library book”.
In recent years the number of sex assault allegations on campuses has risen dramatically and in 2016 British universities were advised to start carrying out their own investigations regardless of the outcome of any criminal inquiry.
But there is concern that the lack of consistency in the way serious matters are handled is causing confusion and stress for both the alleged victims and those accused.
There are now demands for a standard, sector-wide university disciplinary policy for dealing with serious sex assault allegations among students.
The survey of Russell Group universities, which was carried out by law firm Hickman & Rose, found widely varying policies be applied.
Five universities have no set policy
The research found that only Oxford University committed to using independent investigators to establish the facts of a sexual allegation.
Eighteen other universities said they used their own staff to carry out the inquiry, while five universities had no set policy.
Only seven universities, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Leeds and UCL committed to recording evidence from complainants, suspects and witnesses.
Five universities ruled out recording interviews, while 13 had no clear policy on the issue.
Only three universities, Cambridge, Newcastle and Sheffield made a commitment allowing complainants to have legal representation at tribunal-style hearings.
Twelve universities ban complainant lawyers from attending such hearings, while nine made no clear commitment.
Commenting on the research, Jenny Wiltshire, Head of Serious and General Crime at Hickman & Rose Solicitors, said: “Allegations of sexual violence are unlike other student disciplinary matters and it is ludicrous for universities to use the same procedures no matter what the type of allegation.
“These investigations can involve vulnerable individuals trying to recall traumatic events, when the memories of all involved may be impaired by time and substance use.
“In these circumstances, interviews should ideally be conducted by specialists who are independent of the university. But most universities use their own staff, often academics who carry out investigations when not teaching.”
‘Disparities are causing unnecessary confusion’
Ms Wiltshire added: “Then there is the issue that every one of these universities does things in its own way. The level of legal protection for all parties, the independence of an investigation, the extent to which there is due process – all these things vary across the country.
“These disparities are causing unnecessary confusion for both complainants and suspects for whom achieving justice can appear to be influenced by luck as much as anything else.
“It is long past time for the sector to adopt a standard, progressive disciplinary procedure which respects the legal rights of all involved in a sexual allegation on campus.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK said: “Every case of sexual violence on campus is one too many and completely unacceptable. University senior management take these matters extremely seriously and universities are committed to becoming safer places to live, work and study so that no student or member of staff is subject to any form of sexual violence or misconduct.
“UUK and partners Against Violence and Abuse and the NUS have recently published a toolkit for senior leaders of good practice and practical steps to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment, based on research with vice-chancellors who are leading the way in this critical area.
“However while progress has been made, including in encouraging survivors to come forward and report, we know that there is much more to do to end all forms of harassment in higher education. UUK will continue to intensify its work with the sector, to examine what further action we can all collectively take.”
A Russell Group spokesperson said: “No student should feel unsafe or have to tolerate harassment or sexual misconduct in any circumstance and where a crime has been committed, we recommend it is reported to the police. Our universities take this issue and the welfare of their students incredibly seriously and provide a range of support to help them feel supported and safe.
“Our members are working with Universities UK to address this issue at a sector-wide level and will continue to do so to ensure campuses are places of safety and respect for others at all times.”