Words by Ellie Doughty

Under the Sheets (UTS) have followed up their survey from last term with a push for policy change at Sussex, an SU referendum campaign and ongoing talks with the University. 

The group published their survey results online in February of this year, of which over 160 students took part. 

81% of respondents said they had never received mandatory consent education or training, and 87% said they had never had a University faculty member signpost resources regarding sexual assault policies and / or education.

71% of respondents reported being subject to some form of sexual harassment or assault. 61% of them reported being witness to the same. 70% of reporting students never reported the incident to the university. 

Over 40% reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment or assault at a society event. Certain societies, namely Sussex Men’s Rugby, Sussex Snow and Men’s Hockey, were the most prevalent when asked if a perpetrator belonged to a society or club.

A UTS spokesperson told The Badger: “The results of our survey were unfortunately not surprising to us. We know that this is a huge issue at UK universities and Sussex is not exempt. Our job now is to use these figures along with other research and collaborative efforts to spur change at Sussex.”

The UTS campaign for the Spring SU referendum focuses on the reaffirmation of commitment by the Student Union to lobby the University in improving sexual safety at Sussex. 

The referendum goals include lobbying for mandatory consent courses, sexual safety posters, extra training for residential advisors, greater safety measures on campus, and improvements to the reporting system. 

A UTS spokesperson said: “We are currently holding meetings with certain members of the university to discuss what we can do moving forward in meeting our collective aims of reducing sexual violence on campus. Much of the discussion in these meetings has included similar content to the referendum campaign, and we hope that with the lobbying of the SU, and our efforts to reach out, we can come to some fruitful conclusions.”

Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell was asked to interview but was unable to do so in real time. He has instead sent the following in answer to The Badger’s questions.

The University has been working on making consent courses mandatory for a while, and hasn’t been able to as of yet. In aid of student support, transparency and accountability; why hasn’t the University informed the student body that this is something they’re trying to achieve? 

We have seen encouraging take up of our online consent course, which we ask students to complete when they register.  Since we launched it in 2019 more than 5,000 new students have completed the course.  We’ve also had good feedback about the course itself.

We are going to make it even clearer that we require all students starting in 2021 to complete the course at the point of registration, but with an important opt out for students who may be triggered by completing the course, due to their previous experience.  It’s imperative that we have this opt out facility, which then in turn directs the student to our support services.  We want to get as close to 6,000 completions as possible at the point of registration. 

To answer your point about what we are trying to achieve, we will provide information for students on our target for completion of the consent course on the Student Hub and I’ve asked teams to look into this. 

We also offer workshops on consent and healthy relationships to all Sussex students and they form part of our holistic approach to ensuring a safe and enjoyable university experience.  I know our teams are also keen to be able to start scheduling in-person workshops when we are all back on campus. It would be great to work with the Badger on promoting the sessions. 

The Under the Sheets Sexual Violence at Sussex Survey of 160 students in autumn 2020 produced some results which are accessible on their online platforms. Is the Vice-Chancellor surprised by these results? 

Sadly, I am not surprised by some of the results.  We know that most cases of sexual violence are underreported and, although people who have witnessed or been subject to it are more likely to fill in a survey, there is a real problem that needs to be addressed.

I am always very concerned to hear about any unwanted sexual activity and I want to assure those students who completed the survey that we take their experiences very seriously.

I know that colleagues at the Students’ Union will be concerned at the reports stemming from Freshers events and societies– and I’m keen that we consider what more needs to be done, which I know is supported by the Students’ Union and will hopefully be taken forward in terms of enhanced training.  

Within the University we have front line staff who are trained responders, including all of our residential advisors (which means we have 24hr support on campus), all our staff in the Student Life Centre and a large number of staff working in Schools.  Importantly all student facing staff, including our 24hr security team are provided with information as part of our care pathway to direct students to someone who is trained.  In practice this means that one single referral is required to ensure a student is in touch with someone who is a trained responder. 

Our approach through our consent training, as well as our range of support services is one of prevention and protection.  Ultimately we want to be in a position where our prevention work is so effective that the protection element required is reduced, but we are not there yet and we do all need to work together to improve things.  

I support the work of Under the Sheets and other student groups who work on these issues – we are listening and continuing to take action. 

Under The Sheets has reached out to various University and SU bodies in their ongoing work to counter sexual violence at Sussex. What is the University doing to include student input and perspective on ongoing projects?

Since 2018 we have had a Consent Awareness & Abuse Prevention Steering Group, which last year included a representative from Under the Sheets.  This should definitely continue.  I’ve checked with the team and these meetings will resume soon when everyone is fully back on campus.  

It is important to note we have worked closely with the University of Sussex Students’ Union on these issues since 2012, aiming to create a safe environment for our students, in which we hope they feel supported to come forward. We have collaborated with SASH (Students Against Sexual Harassment) and Safer Sussex, and the Students’ Union and Under the Sheets have been represented on the CAAPS steering group previously chaired by Claire Annesley (Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equalities and Diversity at the time). 

We have also sought student input on initiatives such as the Healthy Relationships workshops, which at the start of spring 2020 were delivered by trained postgraduate students. We welcome students’ perspectives on the issues of sexual violence and consent education and how we can increase participation in related projects while delivering our 2018-25 strategy Sussex: Safer, Kinder, Together.

In August this year the University will launch its ‘Report and Support’ tool that will allow students to report an incident of sexual misconduct, domestic violence or hate crime and receive the support that they need. The tool will enable us to promote and advise students of the proactive support and education around this area that we will continue to grow in partnership with students. We have been working with students via the Students Union to ensure that this tool meets the needs of students and provides students with the confidence to use and value this. 

Are all faculty at Sussex who are involved with student interaction trained in disclosure, should a student come to them with a traumatic experience to share? If not, why not?

It’s important when someone discloses that they speak to someone who has received comprehensive training in this area.  As such, we provide guidance to all our faculty, as part of our care pathway on how to refer someone to a fully trained responder.  This sign-posting is a critical part of the protection element of our support for students. 

Between 2017 and 2019, pre-lockdown, the University paid Survivors’ Network and RISE to provide awareness-raising and disclosure training to staff. Many academics took up this opportunity. We are also exploring the possibility of an online disclosure course and are considering the most appropriate programme.

Are the 24-hour on campus services signposted to students immediately following assault fully trained in trauma response and disclosure? If not, why not?

Yes, staff in the Residential Life team are fully trained in trauma response and disclosure of sexual violence.

Are the staff, residential advisors, and security staff at Sussex given bystander training? If not, why not?

Bystander training is most appropriately focussed on students themselves and Students’ Union social venues, such as bars, where intervention is most likely to be required.  I’m aware that the Students’ Union has carried out this training with bar staff.  

We have also included this in our healthy relationships module on Canvas as well as in our Wellbeing Quiz, which is offered to all new students pre-registration.

Is the Vice Chancellor aware of the external services offered in Brighton on this issue, such as the Survivor’s Network, and their long waiting lists for services due to high demand? If so, is he planning on improving the waiting lists at Sussex for mental health services in aid of ensuring students always have access to such essential healthcare?

I am aware of the excellent local services that support victims of sexual violence. Our staff work with charities such as Survivors’ Network, RISE and Veritas Justice on how to respond to disclosures and keep students safe. We have paid these organisations to provide sexual violence training for staff and they also provide sessions on trauma training. RISE provided training for over two years on domestic abuse disclosure.

Our students’ wellbeing is and will always be important to us and we have an open door to providing support. The Student Life Centre is currently operating online and is available to all students, and Student Life advisors are all trained to respond to disclosures of sexual violence. The University Counselling service is also operating online and currently has an average waiting time of around one month – although, of course, we prioritise urgent cases.  

The crisis in young people’s mental health is one of the biggest challenges our society faces. It requires a coordinated approach between education providers, the NHS, government and the charitable sector, to ensure that nobody falls through the gaps. At Sussex, one of our key focuses is on better prevention and early intervention, to help students before they get to the point where they need counselling – although we appreciate that this isn’t possible in all cases, such as those involving trauma.

Compared to 2018/19, in 2020/21, we spent 20% more on mental health provision for students including an increase in our counselling support.  We know this is an area that is really important for our students and we will always spend the maximum we are able to.

Would the University fund consent and bystander training for all societies and clubs at Sussex? If not, why not?

Yes we very much support this.  Student societies and clubs are run by the Students’ Union, so it would be their decision.  We would however strongly encourage those running societies to join our workshops or complete the online training – and this is something we are discussing further with the sabbatical officers. 

The University of Sussex Sexual Violence Strategy from 2018-2025 includes an estimation that ⅓ of female students report having experienced inappropriate touching or groping; a statistic taken from YouthSight in 2015. It also uses a statistic from CSEW 2018 which showed 20% of women and 4% of men had experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16.

However a 2016 survey, which polled 14,000 students in the UK, linked here Sussex was the worst UK university for groping on a night out.  96% of women at Sussex who answered reported the experience of harassment like this on a night out. 

A 2019 survey of 5,649 students, for the charity Brook and the student database Dig-In found that 56% of respondents had experienced some sort of sexual violence at university and only 8% had reported it to the police or university.

Will the Vice-Chancellor accept that statistics of sexual violence are in truth likely much higher than the official statistics given (due to under-reporting, lack of education and more), and conduct serious research into the sexual violence at Sussex University to fully understand the problem?

I accept that there is a fundamental issue with sexual violence within our society – and this includes on University campuses up and down the country.  We have to continue to do more and never accept the status quo.  

I am keen for us to be the University that continues to take action, based on what we know.  That includes more students taking consent classes, more students speaking up and reporting through our new reporting tool, and safer environments for students so that we don’t see these kinds of statistics again and again.

I appreciate that it is very difficult to get accurate statistics on sexual violence due to factors such as under-reporting, fear of what might happen if a student does come forward, and misunderstandings about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour. 

However, I would be keen for the University to carry out its own regular research by surveying students, so that we can better measure the success of the new initiatives we have and are continuing to introduce.  Academic colleagues should be involved in designing this survey. I think this should be discussed at the next Consent Awareness & Abuse Prevention Steering Group, that UTS will hopefully be attending. 

Where an incident occurs off campus, such as during a night out in Brighton, we work with the SU to offer every possible support to our students. This includes crisis response support from trained staff and key initiatives.

While we cannot directly control what takes place outside the University, we remain committed to working with city leaders and groups to help Brighton to be a safer place for our students to live and enjoy. 

Thank you for all your work in this area.

A UTS spokesperson said: “We are pleased to see the Vice Chancellor acknowledge the gravitas of the issue and outline further plans for improvement within systems at Sussex. We look forward to collaborating with the University further.”

Sussex Men’s Rugby have said the following: “We are disgusted and ashamed of the results of the survey, and we do not condone any of the behaviour represented by these statistics. We have the utmost respect for those that stood up and spoke out, and we thank them, as well as the Under the Sheets, for shedding a light on these harmful issues that have permeated into the behaviour of some individuals in our club. We are striving to educate all of our members in issues of consent, toxic masculinity, and the associated mental health consequences of such topics.”

Sussex Snow also provided comment: “A consistent priority of ours is the safety of our members and following the publishing of this survey, we have pushed ourselves as a club to genuinely consider how we can improve the safety of our Snow community. Fundamentally, we have a zero tolerance stance on sexual harassment of any kind. Anyone seen to be harassing or acting in an improper manner will be immediately removed and barred from the club. We have worked, and are continuing to work, to improve how we can better support and protect our members. Furthermore, we are investigating methods to prevent this from ever occurring in the future, and if they were to occur, how best to deal with the situation and support the people involved. Namely, utilising the fantastic resources available to us from our Sussex community. Under the Sheets Sussex encourage us, as a society and students, to vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming SU referendum, requesting the uni improve their sexual safety and education policies. We are also hoping to implement educational training for our committee and members to improve internal sexual safety. We want to highlight that we take these discussions very seriously and want our members (or whoever may join us on our socials/events) to feel comfortable speaking to us, and to know that our committee are always here if needed. Furthermore, we welcome advice and suggestions as to how to improve our welfare commitments and if there are any areas we need to improve on. Finally we want to address the situation in question, emphasising that we have dealt with the situation within the power that we have as a club and as students. We take full and complete responsibility for the previous incidents, and promise to be better in the future. That being said, we felt overwhelmingly unsupported by the SU who, not only acted slowly and with total disregard, but also whose tool for reporting such matters was broken. They made no attempt to contact any individual who may have reported an incident, nor did they make a public statement stating that the tool was broken – attempting to sweep the issue under rug. Because the tool was down without proper communication to the study body, it is possible that cases went unread and unreported by the SU. The SU is doing nothing to rectify or compensate for this. Our commitment to women in snowsports is vital to the women of our club. With over half our committee being women, the membership of our club has thrived because of the strong female energy. We support all the people who have addressed sexual assault and initiated important conversations that strive for vital change. We want to reiterate that women, and all those who identify as such, are ALWAYS welcome in Snow, and we hope our environment is not only safe and welcoming, but empowering.”

Finally, Sussex Men’s Hockey responded, saying: “As a club, we are deeply saddened by the statistics released in this report. We have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any kind of harassment or assault. We deal with these issues when brought to us seriously and communicate with the university accordingly. We have previously run sexual consent workshops with “Sussex Under the Sheets” and we look to continue these sorts of programs in the future. As a club, our aim is to make Sussex a safer place for everyone and we will do all that we can to achieve this.”

The Student Union Officer team have said the following in response: “The brilliant campaigners at Under the Sheets have brought an ever present issue back to the forefront of conversation this year at Sussex. Today we view this within a broader national conversation around sexual violence sparked by the death of Sarah Everard which has rightly called for us to focus on the education of men rather than the protection of women. The Students’ Union is dedicated to working with Under the Sheets and the University to provide this education. The Students’ Union has set up a Sexual Safety Working Group with Under the Sheets, Officers and SU staff to look both internally at our processes and training capabilities, and externally at how we can support the University to build its resources and services around what students want and need.”

Picture Credit: HIAN

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