Students staging a sit-in protest at Warwick University have spent more than two weeks living in a tent in the middle of campus to highlight what they describe as a “huge culture of fear” around sexual abuse and the university’s failure to support victims.
Three years after the university’s “rape chat” scandal, in which a number of male students exchanged violent sexual comments about female students, the protesters say women still do not feel safe on campus or confident reporting incidents to staff.
“The university say they have been trying to improve things over the past few years but students are still here protesting the exact same thing, with the exact same demands,” said Cai Kennedy, a first-year theatre student who helped launch the sit-in with a rally attended by about 350 students.
“We were very wary about the fact the uni hasn’t listened in the past, which is why I proposed the sit-in because we wanted to do something they can’t ignore.”
The protesters, a group named Protect Warwick Women, have presented the university with a list of demands, including sexual violence and consent training for staff and security, more signposting to 24/7 safe spaces on campus, the permanent banning of abusers from campus and increased funding for wellbeing services.
They also want the option of immediate pastoral care in the event of a sexual assault, as opposed to a security response, as they say students are deterred from coming forward for fear of punishment if they have been involved in a breach of Covid rules, for instance.
The university said it “welcomed the ideas put forward” and “there are many areas where we are in broad agreement and where improvements are already in progress or implemented”. However, the students have vowed to continue the sit-in until they receive written confirmation their demands will be implemented.
In recent weeks, thousands of students have shared testimonies of sexual harassment and assault at UK schools and universities since the death of Sarah Everard in March triggered a national conversation about women’s safety.
This week a member of Oxford University’s women’s boat club said she had been failed by the institution’s handling of her rape allegation, and universities across the country are coming under increasing pressure to take more action to tackle sexual abuse on campus.
“There’s a huge culture of fear here and women feel they need to have their guard up all the time. We want to show students at other universities that by provoking conversations, you can change the culture, and you can push institutions to make policy changes,” said Brin Arnold, a first-year computer science student at Warwick.
One first-year student at the sit-in, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was coerced into a sexual act by another student a few months into her time at Warwick, but did not feel confident reporting it to the university.
“I didn’t feel that the university, given the way they have acted with other situations, would be on my side,” said the student, adding the incident left her too scared to leave her accommodation. “We have an obligation, not just to the student population but to ourselves, to make sure the university does become a safer place.”
In January the university faced criticism for its decision to allow a student who groped a woman on campus to continue attending the university to complete his studies. “By allowing these men to get away with a slap on the wrist they’re not only cultivating a rape culture but they’re also discouraging women from coming forward,” said Kennedy.
Georgina Calvert-Lee, a senior counsel at the law firm McAllister Olivarius, represented two of the victims of the rape chat scandal in their discrimination case against the university for the way it handled its investigation, and has been involved in similar cases.
“It’s not just Warwick: these are issues we see across the board in many universities. The whole sector is struggling to find ways to improve processes,” she said. “The people in charge don’t seem to realise the long-term damage this can cause.”
She said university procedures often placed complainants at a disadvantage compared with the accused, and some institutions used confidentiality agreements to prevent victims from talking about their experiences afterwards. “That just seems to me totally wrong and it’s most likely a breach of their duty of care to the students.”
A University of Warwick spokesperson said: “Our policy on sexual misconduct is clear – it will not be tolerated. Individuals who are found to have broken our values, either by the police or by our own comprehensive disciplinary processes, will face sanctions – which include expulsion or withdrawal from the university.”
They said the university was working with the Student Advisory Group on Sexual Misconduct to implement improvements and would introduce active bystander support training for all new students from the next academic year, while staff were already attending training on the impact of sexual misconduct.