Changing the disciplinary procedure for sexual harrassment is urgent and necessary

16 May 2018

Breaking the Silence was a breakthrough by the University to start to address the issues surrounding sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. We have now been able to break that silence. However, action still needs to be taken to demonstrate that the university is not just trying to present itself as well-versed on such a pressing issue without actually making significant changes to improve prevention, response to, and investigation of sexual misconduct. A necessary first step is improving the disciplinary procedure. By changing the standard of proof to balance of probabilities all student disciplinary measures would be affected, however the most significant changes would be for cases concerning sexual harassment.

In the promotion video for Breaking the Silence, the Vice-Chancellor said that the University “has to be a social leader”. Yet being the only UK university that still requires disciplinary measures to be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, it feels like it is lagging far behind other institutions. It is now not only failing to lead but failing to follow. If it is to allow zero tolerance of sexual misconduct, which it has promised to do repeatedly, it is vital that the university create a disciplinary procedure that can ensure that justice will be brought in a fair and reasonable manner. By reforming the disciplinary procedure and introducing the other measures highlighted in the Open Letter, the right signals will finally be sent to survivors, and perpetrators of these crimes, that the University is seriously committed to directly tackling these issues. This could lead not only to increased confidence in survivors to report misconduct that takes place, but also the confidence to take further action against those responsible. 

A continuing rape culture is shockingly apparent even today, and university campuses are not immune to the problem. In the past week The Tab Warwick has reported on a group chat where 11 men repeatedly made threats and joked about rape. This comes weeks after another group chat from the University of Exeter was exposed showing vile racist and sexist comments. Both of these incidents demonstrate how overtly misogynistic language are still present in the university environment, and how universities must be able to eliminate these issues. Cambridge is no different. In Cambridge in a 2014 student survey 77% of respondents said that they had experienced some kind of sexual harassment whilst at university. Between October 2017 and March 2018, 160 anonymous reports were received. However only six complaints were made to the informal procedure called the Procedure for Handling Student Cases of Harassment over the latter period. During 2016-2017 only four complaints were made to the formal disciplinary procedure. This mirrors the national level of reporting cases of sexual misconduct which lies at 15%. This is fuelled by the culture of victim blaming, a failure to trust the effectiveness of the systems in place to bring justice, the deeply retraumatising process of being cross-examined and having your credibility questioned, and the difficulty of finding sufficient evidence to prove that consent was not given. And perpetrators know this. When questioning whether to report the crime, the longer it takes to deliberate, any tangible evidence that did exist can disappear. Instead we need a procedure where people feel comfortable coming forward quickly and having trust in a system that can deliver justice. 

By requiring cases to be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt,’ the University is implying that there is unlikely to be consequences for perpetrators in disciplinary cases pertaining to sexual misconduct, unless the survivor goes to the police. This is due to colleges and the university’s lack of ability to access the same investigative methods as the police that could be offered to a victim, despite them acting with the same burden of proof as a criminal court. This places unnecessary burden on someone who has experienced a traumatic event to go to the police if they want to impose penalties on a perpetrator even with the knowledge that the police routinely fail to rigorously investigate cases of sexual violence. To those afraid of reducing the burden of proof to balance of probabilities in the fear that it could lead to a miscarriage of justice, it is important to note that according to the charity Rape Crisis the level of false accusations in cases of sexual misconduct lies at a similar level to most other crimes: 3%. Due to the retraumatising and sometimes humiliating process of reporting sexual misconduct it will still remain unlikely that the system will be abused, even if the standard of proof was changed from ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to ‘balance of probabilities.’ In addition, as Angus Satow pointed out on the Victoria Derbyshire show, by using the ‘balance of probabilities’ this ‘does not mean the university will start convicting people at whim’ as within the disciplinary procedure there still has to be ‘sizeable evidence’ that sexual misconduct has taken place.

At the Senate Discussion held on the 1st May, several academic staff took time to stand and deliver their reasoning for the change to balance of probabilities. Although giving praise to the establishment of a specialist Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor at the University Counselling Service, they acknowledged that this was not enough. When students come to them time and time again for support and advice, they feel a sense of guilt in directing them to a procedure which they know is unlikely to offer them adequate justice. Students also stood, detailing their reasons why they believed the standard of proof should be, or not be, changed. The overwhelming majority were in favour of the change. This discussion accompanied an open letter signed by over 800 students detailing for change with 800 ribbons tied to the gates of the Senate House to show support for survivors of harassment, sexual assault, and rape. This week the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA) released a series of proposed changes that would help to reform the Disciplinary Procedure. They however felt that the view of the student body was unclear. Therefore, now is the time to flood the consultation on the disciplinary procedure by emailing the OSCCA with testimonials and arguments of why the standard of proof must be changed. The process of change cannot end at the Senate House Discussion.

To set up a system within the University to adequately address sexual misconduct may be challenging to get right and to enforce the correct punishments if necessary, however, it will never approach the hardship of the trauma that victims of sexual misconduct have to face for the rest of their lives. This is a welfare issue that the university must address. However, it must not stop at the possible change of the disciplinary procedure. Increased welfare support must be provided to those suffering from the repercussions of such crimes, and colleges can also do more to ensure adequate welfare support is provided to their students. Without the access to a trained counsellor in college I would most likely not still be at the University I worked so hard to be a part of due to the devastating effects of PTSD resulting from a violent sexual assault. I felt I could tell no one about it for months and I didn’t trust the legal system of the country I was in at the time to bring the perpetrator to justice. I won’t be the first person to feel that, nor the last. But the University of Cambridge has an opportunity to reduce the number of students feeling the same way and suffering the same hardship by creating a disciplinary procedure that is clearer and more accessible to students, alongside an expanded support system. It needs to jump at the opportunity.