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Exclusive: Universities Are Accused Of Lack Of Support For Students Facing Domestic Abuse, Despite “High Prevalence” In Age Group

Exclusive: Universities Are Accused Of Lack Of Support For Students Facing Domestic Abuse, Despite “High Prevalence” In Age Group

Fewer than a fifth of the university disciplinary policies reviewed by PoliticsHome mentioned domestic abuse (Alamy)

6 min read

Universities are under pressure to offer dedicated support for victims of domestic abuse as campaigners warn that it is “highly prevalent” in universities.

ONS data for 2020 shows that women aged 16 to 24 are more likely to experience domestic abuse than any other age group.

But, a PoliticsHome review of a tenth of university disciplinary policies in the UK, chosen from across the academic and regional spectrum, found that fewer than a fifth mentioned domestic abuse, or offered specialised support. 

The scope of the majority of disciplinary policies sampled by PoliticsHome was focussed on sexual violence and harassment, which was often combined with other forms of non-sexual harassment.

These policies outline the official reporting and investigation process in cases of misconduct, and consequently are a primary route to support for victims.

Rosie*, 21, says she was abused by her partner over the course of a year while attending the University of Oxford.  When she tried to access support, she found their reporting procedures did not include domestic abuse. 

“This made an incredibly confusing and difficult time much harder than it should have been, as there was no concrete guidance provided”, said Rosie.

“It felt like the university might not even recognise this type of abuse, let alone have standard procedures for dealing with the inevitably complicated nature of domestic abuse situations.” 

“Universities have focused on sexual violence and forgotten or sidelined domestic violence by adhering to stereotypes about who experiences domestic violence and abuse and who is even in a serious relationship,” Professor Nicole Westmarland, Director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, told PoliticsHome. 

Our review of the online reporting tools offered by the same universities found that only half returned a link to a reporting tool in the first page of results for the search "how do I report domestic abuse to X university."

There was frequently no option to specifially report domestic abuse in the broader sexual violence reporting systems surveyed. 

“If it’s not named in a policy, if it’s not named in support opportunities, then it’s hard to know whether the support is for you and if it’s okay to talk about your experiences in that situation,” Professor Westmarland continued. 

If it’s not named in a policy, if it’s not named in support opportunities, then it’s hard to know whether the support is for you

Rosie said she believed more easily accessible reporting tools would have helped her.

“I was already so confused by the situation I was in. Having just left an abusive relationship, I was certainly not in a position to navigate lengthy policy documents and figure out how to first obtain levels of protection and then make a formal complaint. I wasn’t even informed I could make a formal complaint until it was too late,” she explained.

Professor Westmarland suggested the use of terms like ‘intimate partner violence’ rather than ‘domestic abuse’ in university policies and reporting procedures would help ensure students realised that the support was applicable to them. 

However, effective reporting procedures are no guarantee that survivors will be properly supported. 

Head of policy at SafeLives, Jess Asato, said “you can have the most perfect processes and policies, you may have trained your human resources teams, but if students and staff do not know that these processes exist, and that they are able to complain if this has happened to them, then that's not going to help anybody.”

Katie Tobin, 22, said she experienced domestic abuse while at the University of Sussex. When she reported another student, the university initiated the standard disciplinary procedure against him. 

After an 18-month investigation, the university told her her case had been successful. However, they could not disclose to her what, if any, action was taken.

Tobin was frustrated that in her communication with Sussex her experience was upheld as “inappropriate behaviour”.

“It was so much more than that, he left me homeless and he tried to turn everyone against me,” she said. 

Tobin concluded that the university “wasn't equipped to deal with this kind of thing, no matter how prolific it had been”. 

Dr Diane Phimister and Dr Jane Osmond, who have implemented extensive support for domestic abuse survivors at Coventry University, advocate for holistic support for survivors, that goes beyond the initial report: “We recognised that we needed somebody that could see the process from beginning to end. And that would see them through all sorts of different options.”

They say that domestic abuse often requires specialised support because of the intense psychological component such as coercive control and emotional abuse that can accompany physical violence. 

Prof Westmarland told PoliticsHome that it can be difficult for students, who may be in their first relationship, to recognise patterns of controlling behaviour because there can be a thin line between infatuation and coercive and controlling behaviours.

She said: “Narratives like, ‘I can't live without you, I can never live without you, I would die if I was not with you’, are often used in controlling relationships”.

Tobin agreed that for her, psychological abuse was not immediately recognisable. “I think we put so much emphasis on physical experiences that we don't recognise other really worrying behaviours that are more psychological,” she said. 

“I don't recall in my time at Sussex, ever seeing anything about psychological behaviours, or the dangers of them or what to look out for, which made recognising what I had experienced really hard.” 

I think we put so much emphasis on physical experiences that we don't recognise other really worrying behaviours that are more psychological

Both the University of Oxford and Sussex said that while they could not comment on individual cases, the safety and well-being of their students was their highest priority.

Although Oxford said that their sexual harassment and violence support team undertook domestic violence training in October 2019, neither mentioned the existence of specialised and named support for those reporting domestic abuse.

Sussex added that medical problems and police investigations can slow down university proceedings. 

The Domestic Abuse Bill, currently going through Parliament, will create a statutory definition of domestic abuse that emphasises emotional, coercive or controlling non-physical abuse. 

But, of the universities surveyed by PoliticsHome only a fifth mentioned the term “coercive control” in their policies. 

Sarika Seshadri head of research and evaluation at Women's Aid said: “Universities need a joined-up approach to tackling all forms of violence against women.

"They must work in partnership with violence against women and girls' experts to do this, including ensuring that all staff who provide welfare support and advice to students are fully trained by specialist violence against women and girls' organisations."

Dr Phimister and Dr Osmond added that: “It's about not only educating young women, but also educating young boys and young men as well, in relation to respectful relationships.

*Rosie’s surname has been withheld to protect her identity

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