The Guardian's Education Correspondent Sally Weale thinks UK Universities have a major problem with sexual harassment. According to Weale, sexual harassment is:
- 'At epidemic levels' in UK universities'
- Can be 'likened to the child sex scandals involving Jimmy Saville and the Catholic Church'**
- And is 'completely rife on university campuses'
But is it? Lets take a look at these claims, published in a major national newspaper about some of the most prestigeous Universities in the world.
In The Guardian pieces linked above, Weale states the following:
- 296 allegations of sexual harassment were made in a 6 year period between 2011-2017
- Students reported 169 of the 296 allegations, the other 127 were made by staff/faculty
- This is based on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made to the Universities
- The Guardian says that not all Universities responded to the FOI requests or were able to provide full information, and The Guardian also "rounded down" low numbers of reported cases, so the "true" numbers could be higher
- These cases are "just the tip of the iceberg", this phrase is used 3 times throughout the piece, including in two quotes from a Professor and Lawyer, both of whom have a vested professional interest in sexual harassment cases
So, there were on average 50 claims per year of sexual harassment at 120 UK Universities. 28 of these were made by students against staff/faculty. Note that there are 2.28 million students currently attending all UK Universities as of 2015-2016 - so 0.0012% of those students filed claims of sexual harassment with their University. Based on these facts, this is not widespread, and a 'tip' this small suggests quite a small iceberg underneath, if in fact one exists.
- The Guardian asked for their readers to 'share their experiences' of sexual harassment at UK Universities (Have you been affected by sexual harassment at university?). Note that The Guardian's invitation to share stories was specifically about sexual harassment, allowed anonymous feedback and provided no time frame for stories (i.e. a story from 1970 could theoretically count the same as a story from 2016)
- 'Over 100' readers responded to this request by filling in an online form on The Guardian website
- These stories from readers included "sexual assault" and "rape" but also included entirely different categories such as "verbal bullying, serial harassment, [and] assault"
- This "demonstrates an alarming pattern of abuse and harassment in British universities which remains largely hidden"
- The "majority of cases reported to the Guardian involve senior male academics, often professors, harassing and abusing younger female PhD students whose work they supervise"
The Guardian solicited "more than 100" claims of varies kinds of assault and harassment at UK Universities, only a unspecified subset of which were sexual. Since the story of the results of the solicitation request had to be padded out with other unrelated stories of non-sexual "bullying", it is highly likely that the number of "sexual assault" and "rape" stories provided were substantially <100, and could also have covered any time period. This means The Guardian couldn't solicit - even anonymously and with an unlimited time period - more than the 169 allegations of sexual harassment recorded by 120 UK Universtiries in a 6 year period, and almost certainly much less.
- In an online survey of 2,156 students by the National Union of Students (NUS), 37% of women and 12% of men had faced "unwelcome sexual advances" - 26% overall (classified as 'unwelcome sexual advances - inappropriate touching, bumping, groping')
- The survey "paints a woeful portrait of 'laddism' at UK universities"
- University authorities need to "stop 'passing the buck' and acknowledge the problem on British campuses"
- NUS President Toni Pearce is quoted saying "These stats show that harassment is rife on campus, but we still keep hearing from universities that there is no fear, no intimidation, no problem - well this new research says otherwise"
The NUS survey didn't ask about sexual assault or rape, or even use those terms. In fact the majority of its questions related to experiencing verbal comments of a sexual nature. Even the 'unwanted sexual advances' category including 'bumping' - god forbid this was to happen at a packed night club on Freshers week.
Despite relying on this survey to claim that 'sexual assault' is 'rife' at University, the NUS survey actually undermines the other arguments about these cases being the 'tip of a hidden iceberg' made in the other articles by Weale above. According to the NUS results, in response to any "unwanted sexual advances", only 11% "wouldn't report" an issue because they thought they wouldn't be taken seriously. 65% would report it to their university, 35% would report it to their union, and 29% would call the police. Weale does not mention these findings at all.
If 26% of the 2.28 million men & women at University had faced unwanted sexual advances and 65% reported it to their University, roughly 385,000 cases of sexual assault/harassment would be reported to Universities every year. Based on The Guardian's FOI requests, they actually recorded 28 a year. Either there is a gigantic cover up on the part of all UK Universities or the NUS survey is flawed.
Note that the NUS does have prior form in hyping up fears about 'lad culture' and 'sexual assault' at University on the basis of a minuscule sample size of reports. For example, in 2015 it wrote a massive 77 page report 'That’s what she said, Women students’ experiences of ‘lad culture’ in higher education', largely based on the testimony of just 40 women students. These could well be the very same 40 students who filled out The Guardian's online solicitation for 'stories' as well, and not representative of the UK as a whole.
Okay Spotlight team, do we have another Church abuse style scandal on our hands?
The Guardian's claims amount to <50 allegations of sexual assault per year (out of 2.28 million students), and their "tip of the iceberg" theory is undermined by the fact that the majority of NUS students say they would report such issues to their university, union, or the police. Perhaps there could be a giant conspiracy across all 120 Universities (and Student Unions and the Police) to cover up the "true" scale of this "epidemic" of sex crimes perpetrated by Jimmy Saville with a PhD, but I doubt it.
Finally, note that this "theory" that Universities are "rife" with unreported sex crime isn't scientific or rational, in that it isn't falsifiable. How can you disprove this theory? Read through Weale's articles, note the potential possibilities, and you'll realise that the possibility that there is no epidemic of sexual harassment isn't allowed:
- If reported sexual assault cases are high - this proves there is a problem with sexual harassment
- If reported sexual assault cases are low - this proves there is a problem with sexual harassment but we just can't see it. Victims were "dissuaded from making official complaints ... never reported their harassment, fearful of the impact on their education or careers", so the "true scale of the problem is far greater". Or the data sucks: (Why the true scale of university harassment is so hard to uncover). This still true even if The Guardian asks in an anonymous survey for issues to be reported to it directly, and generates less sexual harassment reports than recorded by Universities themselves
- If reported sexual assault cases fall year on year - this proves there is a problem with sexual harassment but we need to encourage more victims to come forward, or the reporting systems are failing
- If reported sexual assault cases increase year on year - this proves there is a problem with sexual harassment, it is getting worse, we need to encourage more victims to come forward and keep improving the reporting systems
I don't think it is a coincidence that the vast majority of the sources quoted in Weale's articles also have a vested interest in perpetuating this theory, for entirely rational reasons. Lawyers want to prosecute more cases to get justice, victim groups want to find more victims to help, and 'Professors of sexualised violence', well, they need something to lecture about.
That doesn't mean the theory can't be true, but Weale & The Guardian certainly haven't presented any compelling evidence of it, despite trying hard to "uncover" something they "know" is there, for at least 2+ years, with increasingly more shrill claims about the 'true' or 'real' picture.
Rather than a dispassionate investigation, this irrationality and lack of falsifiability is more akin to a religious belief. And speaking of religion....
Wait - there's more..... what happens if the "iceberg" isn't something Weale & The Guardian want to find?
For Weale, if an education scandal isn't the 'right' kind of scandal, then either no iceberg exists, its a tiny one, or its "Icebergophobia" to even mention the iceberg at all (I may have made that last one up).
Non Iceberg 1: Trojan Horse hardline Islamist take over in Birmingham Schools
The Trojan Horse scandal was uncovered in early 2014 and was probably the most important story in all of Education throughout 2014 - the scandal broke early in that year and an official government report into the affair was published in July. As it happens, Sally Weale was announced as the new Education Correspondent for The Guardian that very same month (she took up her post in Sep 2014). So right in the thick of it, so to speak.
According to that official UK government sponsored report, Trojan Horse involved "hard line Islamist extremists", who undertook a "deliberate" series of actions to "introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into multiple schools in Birmingham. The aim was "the imposition of an aggressively separatist and intolerant agenda incompatible with full participation in a plural secular democracy", and damaged the education of literally thousands of schoolchildren, by:
- Destabilising and removing multiple headteachers
- Intimidating teachers
- Taking over boards of school governors
- Introducing intolerence to non Islamic religions
- Homophobic and/or anti-semitic lessons
- Lectures by extremist preachers taking place on School premises
- Segregating males/females at school (making girls sit at the back or side of class)
- Breaking into girls mobile phones to find out if they had pictures of boyfriends on them
- Teachers handing out worksheets saying "women must obey their husbands", and "did not have the right to refuse sex"
- And much more
This was a widespread conspiracy - one of the ways those involved coordinated actions was via a Private Social Media group called the 'Park View Brotherhood' (named after one of the Schools in question), set up by a headteacher and frequented by teachers and others. This group was all male, and contained the following "discussions" over roughly 3,000 messages:
- Explicit homophobia
- Highly offensive comments about British service personnel
- A stated ambition to increase segregation in the Park View school
- Disparagement of strands of Islam
- Scepticism about the truth of reports of the murder of Lee Rigby (who was decapitated in the street in full view of CCTV) and the Boston bombings (also filmed)
- A constant undercurrent of anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment
When the author of the official government report asked the headteacher about the group, he simply lied and said it was for discussing "School Assemblies".
Despite this being a major scandal, and a huge education story, Weale barely wrote anything about it. Needless to say, neither she nor The Guardian "uncovered" what was happening in Birmingham in advance, because they carried out no investigation at all - whilst carrying out a long running, sustained investigation over 2 years into sexual assault at Universities which has gone nowhere fast.
But even after the story was widely reported elsewhere in the media, Weale never wrote a single standalone investigative piece on Trojan Horse. There was no 'appeal to readers' to send in their stories from Birmingham (or elsewhere in the UK). No pieces saying this was 'the tip of the iceberg' (despite an obvious conspiracy, so what about other Schools in Birmingham? Elsewhere in the UK? Who cares!). In fact, the only references to the scandal written by Weale are in other unrelated stories, the vast majority of these downplaying the story or claiming it was only "alleged" to have happened. Bear in mind this is about thousands of children lives. A typical example (where Weale goes on to later quote someone advocating ignoring the law too):
A "small number of isolated incidents", lets not blow this "out of proportion". Remember, 28 sexual assault allegations a year equals an "epidemic" of assaults taking place up and down the land. In response to thousands of schoolchildren being taught to kill gays in public schools in the 21st century, should we make sure schools are at least teaching British values like democracy, rule of law and respect for other religions? Weale doesn't think so, or at the very least, she consistently quotes people who don't, and virtually nobody who does.
Non Iceberg 2: Wearing of Islamic veils in Schools
On the same topic of Islamic radicalisation and extremism in Schools, what about the issue of girls being forced or pressured into wearing full veils in School? Another non-issue according to Weale (in fact, whether to have school kids wearing "full face veils" is simply a "debate" to be had):
I'm glad this is also an issue affecting only "tiny numbers" that aren't the tip of a larger iceberg. Phew. Of course, if Weale wanted to look, she would see that these two "non-Icebergs" in Education are actually closely related.
Note who Weale quotes first in this piece downplaying the issue - Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). What Weale doesn't say is that the MCB once published a 72 page 'blueprint' for the 'Islamisation of Schools' by the ringleader of the Trojan Horse scandal, Tahir Alam. Alam used to be the Chairman of the Board of Governors at Park View School (yes, the same one from the 'Park View Brotherhood' full of antisemitic, intolerant, lying racists). In fact, Alam was the Chair of the Muslim Council of Britain's Education Committee!
Tahir Alam's blueprint contained the following:
- Girls should be covered except for their hands and face (i.e. wear the hijab)
- Beards should be grown/respected
- 5 prayers a day, "accompanied by ritual washing"
- Schools shouldn't schedule Swimming during Ramadan (in case pupils "swallow water")
- In fact, Swimming should be single gender, with single gender at poolside as well (and even then, everyone wears a full tracksuit, or long leggings)
- Sports involving contact should be single gender, with single gender shower areas for "modesty requirements"
- Dance is "not consistent with the Islamic requirements for modesty [...] most Muslim parents will find little or no educational merit or value in dance or dancing after early childhood"
- Girlfriends and boyfriends are un-Islamic
- Homosexuality is un-Islamic
- Music, or at least popular music is likely to contain "un-Islamic lyrics"
- No "fashion shows"
- Drama that involves "physical contact" between opposite sexes should be avoided
- And so on....
Tahir Alam has since been banned from working in education ever again, the first type of ban of its kind (and no, Weale didn't write that piece in The Guardian either). Of course, Alam says it's all a made up "hoax" and 'Islamophobia".
That's not even really mentioning that the Muslim Council of Britain, so readily quoted to back up the fact that this is a "small problem" in Schools by Weale, has supported actual terrorist groups in the past, along with blatant anti-semitism. For example, during the last Labour government, the MCB Deputy Secretary General Daud Abdullah signed a so-called 'Istanbul Declaration' against the Gaza/Israel conflict. In this 'Declaration', Abdullah praised the terrorist group Hamas (or 'The Mujuhadin'), called the State of Israel the 'Jewish Zionist Entity' or 'Jewish Occupiers', and openly called for the supply of further weapons to Hamas and potentially attacks on British sailors.
Good job there are no icebergs to discover here, hey?
** Of course, it was up to the Boston Globe 'Spotlight' team to break the story of the Catholic church scandal. And The Guardian was still referring to Sir Jimmy as "the inimitable octogenarian with countless anecdotes" in puff pieces, whilst writing an obituary that said his "apparent lack of a sex life" meant that "he was never going to be Milk Tray Man, parachuting out of the darkness carrying a red rose and a box of chocolates" until an ITV documentary exposure fully blew the lid off Saville's crimes in 2012. But maybe their intrepid team of reporters were busy exposing this "pattern of [sexual] harassment which remains largely hidden" (despite their best efforts at exposé). In this case however, The Guardian isn't quite up to the level of Spotlight or even ITV.