CN: Sexual assault, sexual harassment,
rape, victim-blaming, trauma, exams
The launch of Cambridge University’s “Breaking the Silence” campaign presents an exciting future for students here. Central to the campaign is the University’s new procedure on sexual harassment and misconduct. Drawing on recommendations from Universities UK (UUK), the procedure sets out how complaints can be made, conduct agreements drawn up between the complainant(s) and the other student(s), and the circumstances under which the University’s disciplinary procedure might come into play.
However, the procedure is just one part of the University’s wider campaign to tackle sexual misconduct on campus. Other measures falling under the “Breaking the Silence” umbrella include an anonymous reporting mechanism and training on staff-student misconduct. The University has clearly committed to taking this issue seriously, and now it’s time for it to take the next step.
While the experiences of survivors aren’t identical, it is common for people who have experienced sexual assault, such as rape, to continue to relive and experience trauma after the event. This continued trauma can have an impact on many parts of their lives, and for university students this includes exams. Currently, sexual assault is not explicitly listed as an extenuating circumstance under Cambridge’s policy.
The case for why this should change is clear. Earlier this year, a Guardian investigation concluded that sexual harassment, misconduct, and gender violence by university staff are at epidemic levels. And while there are no official figures about the number of people sexually assaulted during their studies, a 2015 Telegraph survey reported that one in three undergraduate students had experienced sexual assault or harassment. Given that through its campus-wide campaign Cambridge has acknowledged that sexual violence is a problem here, it only makes sense that it also acknowledge that academic performance can be and is affected by experiences of sexual misconduct and provide the relevant support.
“Currently, sexual assault is not explicitly listed as an extenuating circumstance under Cambridge’s policy”
It’s also worth pointing out that many survivors find it difficult to come forward with their experiences to seek support because of a wide culture of victim blaming. It might also not be immediately apparent to some that their experience could entitle them to special consideration Thus, the University should proactively reach out to those students by explicitly listing sexual assault as an extenuating circumstance, rather than leaving students to play a guessing game.
The positive effects of clear support are difficult to ignore. E, a student at Exeter University, was sexually assaulted in her second year and received a work extension for extenuating circumstances. She said it “was really helpful to have that extension, since for a couple of weeks afterwards I was really anxious, and couldn’t sleep properly, which really affected my work.” Moreover, J, who graduated from Oxford University, had a difficult time coping with her assault during her final exams but found that her “personal tutor and the welfare advisor in college were extremely supportive throughout the process, telling me they believed me unconditionally and doing anything they could to help – even offering to walk me to my exams.”
Testimonies such as these show that those who live with long-term effects of sexual violence do not have to add exam performance to their list of concerns. Even an act as simple as unconditional belief and support from a member of university staff can make a world of difference to a students’ mental health and their ability to cope under stressful academic conditions.
So I have set up a petition on Change.org calling on universities across the country (including Cambridge) to include sexual assault as a mitigating circumstance in their policies. And for UUK and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to advise them to do so.
Cambridge has already responded to the petition and had this to say: “If a student has suffered any grave circumstance that has impacted upon their examinations, including harassment or sexual assault, then they can apply for an examination allowance… The University’s guidance… does not explicitly list sexual assault or rape. This guidance is regularly reviewed and in the next review, consideration will be given to including a larger number of examples, including examples relating to students who have been a victim of a serious crime.”
This is a promising step forward, but we need to keep pressure on the institution to be true to its word. And we need universities across the country to make this change, too. As of March of this year, only four universities were recorded as listing sexual assault as an extenuating circumstance. We can push this number higher.
Sign my Change.org petition calling on the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to and Universities UK to recommend that all universities nationally list sexual assault as an extenuating circumstance.
Level the academic playing field for survivors, and let’s break the silence in every corner of our university and in universities across the country.