THE NUMBER of reports about sexual misconduct at Oxford University is ‘incredibly low’ compared to the ‘real figures’ and activists are insisting there could be a fear of reporting the details. 

In the academic years from 2017 to 2021, the university’s central administration team received a total of 26 sexual misconduct reports - of these reports, five allegations were made against staff members.

Timea Iliffe, age 20, one of the heads of an Oxford Student Union campaign group called It Happens Here, said: “I am thinking of how many people I could name just off the top of my head is probably going to be higher than those yearly statistics.”

She said the figures were ‘incredibly low’ and that they show a ‘gross underestimate’ of the instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment that take place each year on campus.

The group has attributed the low number of reports to several factors: a culture where victims do not feel they can come forward and the university’s complex collegiate system.

“The collegiate system is one of the central barriers we have continuously come up against”

Each of the 39 colleges at the university operates as a separate legal entity and each is a public authority in its own right - this means that the University’s central reporting system does not hold information on whether more sexual misconduct reports were made to individual colleges.

Timea, who is a student at New College, explained: “This is a really fundamental problem with the way Oxford [University] is organised, and the collegiate system is one of the central barriers we have continuously come up against.

“Because every college is a legally autonomous independent entity reports are often made to individual colleges.

“Centralising the reporting system, so that reporting is carried out evenly and fairly would help, rather than discipline happening or not happening based on whether you have a sympathetic dean or proctor at your college.”

Nicola Sharp, age 20, who co-chairs the student group, added: “Colleges can feel like a small village at times, where everyone knows each other, which in some ways can be great when things are going well, you can all support each other and have a great community but on the other hand this can lead to complications.

“People’s experiences of the reporting system seem to be highly dependent on the outlook of the staff members involved in the reporting system, and the problem is that although many staff members are well-meaning, they do not receive formal training on how to handle these reports.”

But this is not the only factor attributed to why there is a culture of underreporting experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“It comes down to a power dynamic”

The campaign group has said that concerns on how reporting the issue will affect an individual’s degree outcome is often a reason why victims fail to report incidences to the university.

Furthermore, in cases where the alleged perpetrator is a staff member, the group says that students may be fearful of making a report against someone in a high position of academic power.

Oxford Mail: This image was created on Canva, by Eirian Jane ProsserThis image was created on Canva, by Eirian Jane Prosser

Nicola, who attends St Hugh's College, added: “Regarding complaints against a staff member, it comes down to a power dynamic, and there is even more pressure on the victim not to report because of concerns about backlash or a feeling of helplessness of what do I that situation, because of the power imbalance.

“This leads to non-reporting in general, which is a very big issue.

“Universities like Oxford make it [reporting] that make it even more difficult is the culture of having a high workload and pushing students to their limits – the problem with that is there is not much buffer for anything to go wrong in the first place.

Oxford Mail: Created on Canva, by Eirian Jane ProsserCreated on Canva, by Eirian Jane Prosser

“If a victim goes through something, such as sexual harassment or violence, there is a lot of pressure to compromise on their degree by responding to that violence or harassment.

“Alternatively, people push away what happens to them as they don’t want to get involved in reporting and instead keep going with the degree, which in the long term is not feasible.”

“There is a culture of silencing victims of sexual violence and abuse”

Violence against women and girls campaigner, and Oxford City Councillor Shaista Aziz echoed the issue of underreporting.  

She said: “The numbers that have been released are really woefully low and that really fits into the national picture.

“We know the victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse do not come forward, especially if they are a woman or a member of the LGBTQI+ community, as you face additional vulnerabilities.

“There is a culture of silencing victims of sexual violence and abuse, and this impacts whether people feel that they can come forward to report incidences.”

National data further reflects that it is unlikely that these figures reveal the full extent to which sexual assault and harassment are taking place at the university.

A survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in June 2019 exploring students’ experiences and perceptions of sexual harassment, violence, and domestic abuse revealed that over 75 per cent of respondents had an unwanted sexual experience at least once.

One-third of these cases were experienced when the student was at their further education establishment.

“Sexual harassment is rife across society, with students deeply affected by a culture which normalises it”

Further research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that three per cent of rape or sexual assault by penetration (including attempts) experienced by adults aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales took place at a university, school, or place of study.

Sara Khan, who is vice-president for liberation and equalities at NUS, said: “It’s sad but unsurprising that sexual harassment is rife across society, with students deeply affected by a culture which normalises it.

“NUS’ own research in 2018 showed that at least four in ten students had experienced sexual misconduct, and this data shows that universities need to do much more to tackle the problem.

“But we know the real figures are likely much higher – sexual violence reporting rates at universities are already very low due to the normalisation of unwanted sexual behaviors, stigmatisation of those who choose to come forward, and a lack of clear supportive and robust reporting procedures.

“We need to see a culture shift across society, with accountability and transformative justice at its heart.”

Students in Oxford are now taking things into their own hands by finding alternative ways to expose the issues surrounding sexual harassment and assault on campus.

It Happens Here has launched an Instagram account, called 'Surviving Oxford' allowing students to share their alleged experiences of sexual assault and harassment at the university anonymously.

The site – which was set up less than a fortnight ago – has already received 22 testimonies, each documenting sexual misconduct accounts, including rape and spiking.

Campaigners hope the social media page will ‘provide a safe space where survivors of sexual violence and harassment at Oxford can share their stories’.         

"Oxford remains fully committed to ensuring that all students and staff are safe during their time here”

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said: “We are aware that reporting of sexual misconduct remains low in the university community, as it does in the wider society, and the University continues to put measures in place to encourage those affected to feel empowered to seek support.

“Since the establishment of the Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service, we have seen increasing numbers of students coming forward and we would encourage anyone affected by this very serious issue to seek support."

The university said it offers full support throughout the process of reporting, including any support necessary to help students continue their studies.

The university said it cannot comment on individual cases or the outcome of the report when

The spokesperson added: “Oxford remains fully committed to ensuring that all students and staff are safe during their time here and takes any allegation of sexual misconduct extremely seriously.

“The university treats any behaviour of a sexual nature that takes place without consent as sexual misconduct and any student bringing forward complaints of this nature will always be listened to and supported.

“Students are advised on their options, including how to make a complaint, and offered a number of support services by the University.”

The University was one of the first institution to engage with an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor, seconded from the local Rape Crisis Centre.

The advisor is based within the Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service.

The university also works closely with Thames Valley Police to encourage anyone affected by sexual violence to report them to the police.

“We would always encourage victims to come forward”

Thames Valley Police said it takes all reports of sexual offences ‘extremely seriously’ and remains ‘committed to preventing and detecting offences of this nature.

A spokesperson for the force added: “We would always encourage victims to come forward, where they will receive specialist support and will be treated with sensitivity and compassion.

“Any reported offence will be thoroughly investigated, and we work closely with our partners to ensure anyone who may have been a victim of sexual assault feels able and willing to report this to us.

“More specifically we chair a regular partnership meeting, of which the University is a key partner, to discuss any concerns and monitor reports of sexual violence and allocate support where needed."

The police also said it works closely with the university on 'Project Vigilant' - a perpetrator focussed initiative to identify predatory behaviour, which was launched in 2019.

If you've been sexually assaulted, there are a number of services that can help:

  • The Rape Crisis national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12 to 2.30pm and 7 to 9.30pm every day of the year)
  • Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse & Rape Crisis Centre can be reached on 01865 725311 or for appointments or referrals
  • Voluntary organisations such as Woman’s Aid, Victim Support, The Survivors Trust, or Survivors UK
  • The 24-hour freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247
  • If you are in immediate danger contact the emergency services on 999