CUSU Women’s Campaign issues open letter to University Vice-Chancellor

Caithlin Ng 7 February 2018

The Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) Women’s Campaign has today released an open letter to Professor Stephen Toope, the University Vice-Chancellor, calling on the University’s Discipline Committee to drop requirements for ‘criminal standard of proof’ beyond reasonable doubt in cases of alleged sexual assault on students, which it claims hinders attempts made by the University through the ‘Breaking the Silence’ initiative.

The open letter criticises the current policy of the University, stating that it is the only UK university to require disciplinary matters to be proven ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. It claims that the current procedure places an undue amount of stress on complainants by creating a false ‘criminal court’ within the University, making it ‘archaic and inaccessible’.

The CUSU Women’s Campaign letter, which has received over 50 signatures in the first hour since its publication onto the group’s Facebook page, asks for a reform in the use of language so that procedures cease to resemble a court of law; inclusion of the new University Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor within disciplinary procedures; a greater amount of investment; allowing a greater scope of people to raise a complaint about a Cambridge student, including those who are not students of the University; and simplifying the student discipline regulations to make it more accessible to students.

It also asks that ‘the balance of probabilities be adopted for all cases under the disciplinary procedure in the hope it will give survivors and victims of sexual assault more confidence to access it’. The current policy contradicts with the University’s commitment to ‘continuously work to improve the prevention, response, support and investigation of all instances of harassment and sexual misconduct; and to enable staff and students to make disclosures without fear of reprisal’.

The Women’s Campaign also mentions the 173 anonymous reports over a nine month period of sexual misconduct at the university, with many more slipping unnoticed due to the ‘lack of trust in the institution’s ability to deal with these cases robustly’. This figure is compared with the significantly smaller percentage of convictions in reported rape cases, of which only 5.7% result in a conviction for the perpetrator.

The current standard of proof required by the Disciplinary Committee requires satisfaction that the claim is ‘more likely to be true than not true’, and is often adopted in cases where the ‘cost of error’ in both directions is deemed equal.

Along with the letter, the Women’s Campaign post on Facebook included a statement: ‘[We have] always insisted on the need for survivor focused responses to sexual assault and harassment. It is our work in collecting data to present to the university and continually placing pressure on them to acknowledge the scale of the problem that provided the foundation for the new Breaking the Silence Campaign and the initiatives associated with it.’

‘We know from national statistics that it is extremely difficult to prove cases of sexual misconduct “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That does not mean that these cases do not occur, it simply means that survivors are locked out methods of addressing them.

“The use of a criminal standard of proof in this instance is not only outdated but makes us an outlier in comparison to all other UK universities. If we want survivors to come forward, if we demand disclosure – we must also signal to them that we will do everything in our power to ensure they are believed, supported and that there will be disciplinary sanctions for perpetrators.’

The statement concludes: ‘Supporting survivors is not something we say, it is something we do. At the very least, a thorough review of our disciplinary procedure is needed and the women’s campaign should play an active role in this. We are currently in the process of prompting a topic of concern at Senate House on the issue and we encourage any student who feels passionately to come and speak in favour of the proposed change.’

CUSU Women’s Officer Lola Olufemi added, “The University disciplinary procedure is in desperate need of reform. By requiring a criminal standard of proof for decisions, the disciplinary procedure as it stands, actively stops survivors from accessing formal procedures.”

In a statement, the University said: “The University’s disciplinary procedures are currently under review and any feedback received through students and or staff will be carefully considered and form part of the discussion around improvements that should be made to the disciplinary procedures.

Currently, the University has a wide range of support and reporting mechanisms available for students and staff at the University, which have been designed and implemented following consultation with the University community and specialist organisations including Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre.  

We continue to work to improve the prevention, response, support and investigation of all instances of harassment and sexual misconduct; and to enable staff and students to feel safe and supported in make disclosures.”