Senior MPs, student leaders and equality campaigners have accused universities of failing to effectively tackle sexual misconduct after a Guardian investigation found that many have not carried out recommended reforms to support and protect victims.
The research has shown major discrepancies remain in the ways many universities record incidents, which range from verbal harassment to rape, more than a year after a Universities UK (UUK) taskforce made recommendations for improvement.
On Wednesday, UUK published a report saying there had been “significant but variable” progress across the sector in dealing with student-on-student misconduct in the past 18 months, resulting in an increased number of disclosures from those affected.
Though this was considered a mark of success, some universities who took part in the small sample survey expressed concern about their ability to deal with the high volume of disclosures.
The report also found that a fifth of institutions included in the survey had made very limited progress, and overall there was far less evidence of new measures to address staff-to-student misconduct. It also called for a greater focus on hate crime and hate-based harassment.
Freedom of information (FoI) requests sent to 132 universities found there were at least 1,953 reports of sexual misconduct committed by students and staff at UK universities in the past seven years.
There were another 213 incidents over this period where the alleged perpetrator’s identity was not recorded, which universities noted might include further allegations against students and staff.
Many universities only disclosed formal complaints, with 14 acknowledging that individual academic departments could hold additional allegations and informal complaints. Another 10 universities said they did not have figures for all of the years requested.
Several only disclosed complaints against staff because cases against students were not centrally collated, and others only disclosed complaints against students.
Dame Janet Beer, the UUK president and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said the results of the report were encouraging but that more needed to be done.
The Labour MP Lucy Powell, a member of the Commons education select committee, said the Guardian’s findings showed universities’ reporting of sexual misconduct was “woefully inconsistent”.
She said: “Given all the exposure and the UUK taskforce, you would have thought it would have been a higher priority to get an exact picture of what’s happening across campuses.
“It’s very disappointing that very little progress seems to have been made. Clearly the requirements on universities need strengthening. The government does need to provide clear signals on its expectations.”
Maria Miller, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons women and equalities committee, said it was concerning that universities were still finding it difficult to provide accurate data on the scale of the problem.
“If universities are not effectively tackling the problem of sexual harassment then the government needs to go back and consider how more transparency and better reporting could be enforced,” she said.
The University of Cambridge recorded the most incidents between 2011-12 and 2017-18, with at least 215 reports of student and staff misconduct. This high number is due to the university introducing a new system last year allowing students and staff to disclose incidents anonymously, leading to 128 reports in nine months. In contrast, only three complaints were recorded between 2011-12 and 2015-16.
Durham University recorded the second highest number of cases over seven years, with 88. It introduced a new sexual violence and misconduct policy in the current academic year, and has a full-time officer dedicated to tackling the issue who keeps a record of all reported incidents.
Not all universities provided a breakdown of complaints against students and staff. But it is clear from those that did that the vast majority of allegations – at least 1,133 – were made against students, compared with 264 against staff.
UUK published recommendations in October 2016 on tackling sexual misconduct, which included “an effective, centralised process for recording incidents”.
Sarah Green, the co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, said: “It’s disappointing that the reporting is so inconsistent. The UUK taskforce made some strong recommendations but we are worried that momentum is being lost.”
The FoI survey also found there were at least 732 investigations into sexual misconduct by students and staff. At least 54 staff were suspended, usually on a temporary basis during an investigation. Only 20 staff were banned from teaching, which was also usually a temporary measure.
Less than half (62) of the universities surveyed offered training on sexual consent to students, and this was only mandatory at six institutions.
Hareem Ghani, the women’s officer at the National Union of Students, said the number of reported incidents that were investigated was “woefully low”.
She added: “The confusion in the figures reflects the continued murkiness in how institutions record incidents, and the clear failings in their response. Universities can no longer plead ignorance: sexual violence on campuses is still at crisis point and they must act now.”
The universities minister, Sam Gyimah, said: “We encourage institutions to take a proactive response to tackle sexual harassment, including ensuring that students feel confident and able to report any issues.”
A UUK spokeswoman said follow-up work from its taskforce showed that universities and student unions had developed a range of strategies, including centralised reporting systems.
But she added: “There is clearly further work to do. University leaders should ensure that policies bring about real change. All students and staff are entitled to a safe and positive experience and all universities have a duty to provide that outcome.”