Winning a place at Cambridge University feels like a dream for the lucky few plucked from thousands who apply each year. But it’s a dream which swiftly sours for some female undergraduates both in Cambridge – and across the country.
For six months, Channel 4 News has been investigating sexual violence and misconduct against women on campus, after controversy over the Warwick University “rape chat” scandal. Last week, Warwick’s vice-chancellor apologised to female students who’d been the subject of violent sexual comments online by male undergraduates.
Using Freedom of Information laws, we’ve discovered a startling rise in allegations of sexual misconduct at British universities who provided us with figures – with Cambridge reporting among the highest figures. According to those statistics, there’s been a combined increase of 82 per cent in reports of rape and sexual assault across the UK in the last year alone.
Some 165 allegations of rape or sexual assault have been reported by Cambridge students in the last three years. We spoke to several women who say they were attacked and feel badly let down by the university.
Barrister Charlotte Proudman has been working with female undergraduates who say they have been sexually assaulted on campus, and says: “I have seen many cases not only at university level but across colleges. And colleges have failed to investigate, the University have turned women away when they’ve gone along with either informal or formal complaints. And adding on a further layer to that often the consequence is that these complaints are swept under the carpet and therefore women are not protected. So these victims are not given the support they so desperately require.”
Shockingly, the risk to women at Cambridge is repeated up and down the country. Our research suggests there’s an epidemic of sexual violence.
We asked every university in the UK for the number of reported incidents of rape or sexual assault. Those universities which provided figures to Channel 4 News showed an alarming rise – from 65 in 2014, to 626 in 2018. In the last year alone they show there has been an 82 per cent increase.
In total, over the last five years there have been more than 1,600 reports of rape or sexual assault. And if you include other offences, like harassment, the tally rises to 1,900 – with the highest number of allegations at East Anglia University, followed by the university of Cambridge.
Birmingham pointed out that students were able to report historic cases from life before university, potentially inflating totals. Indeed, Birmingham actively refuted the figure of 87 reported incidents, saying that the “over the last 5 years the number of formal complaints relating to sexual assault or serious sexual harassment was 14.”
All the universities says they’ve recently launched anonymous reporting tools and initiatives to encourage students to report in an effort to better support them.
Cambridge launched a campaign against sexual violence in 2017. That, and the MeToo movement, may have led to an increase in reporting. But Ms Proudman believes our figures are still likely to be a significant under-estimate.
Cambridge University said that cases such as this were “exactly” why they had pushed for change.
Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Graham Virgo said that they have made a number of big changes since the woman featured on our report made her allegations, including an anonymous reporting tool and a campaign to raise awareness.
He said: “I know from listening to students that no matter how well an investigation is handled it can be an extremely difficult experience. We are doing everything we can to make sure students feel supported.
“Sexual harassment is an issue for all universities, and for society – 1 in 4 UK women between the ages of 16 and 24 are subjected to some form of sexual violence. It is one of the most under-reported crimes as a result
of stigma and victim blaming attached to it. We have to continue to address this and we will.”