Top unis are hiring investigators to deal with students accused of sexual assault

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Some of the UK’s top universities are hiring specialist investigators to deal with student sexual assault cases, against a backdrop of a soaring rise in reports in recent years.

Durham, York, and Manchester are among the unis to have employed staff tasked solely with investigating students accused of sexual assault, The Tab can reveal.

A number of unis are also paying private companies around £10,000 per case to deal with allegations.

Georgina Calvert-Lee, a lawyer who represented two victims of the Warwick group chat when they sued their university, told The Tab it was a “positive step”, but could still not “guarantee an absolutely perfect bias-free outcome for the complainant.

“It’s really only been in the last few years that the sector has really grappled with the inadequacy of their procedures, and the fact that it amounts to discrimination,” she added.

Universities are dealing with a rapid increase in sexual assault cases on campus. From 2015 to 2019, the number of reports made by students doubled.

While some universities have taken on specialist investigators in that time, others simply leave it to heads of department.

When the Warwick group chat emerged, Peter Dunn, the university’s Director of Press and Media Relations – or, the person in charge of protecting Warwick’s reputation – was assigned to investigate the case.

A victim of the group chat suggested this lead to a conflict of interest for him. The university insisted his roles were “entirely separate”.

And, three years on from the group chat scandal, most universities still leave cases to senior staff , who may have training, but all have other jobs and responsibilities.

This can lead to distressing delays for students who have reported an incident to their university, said Calvert-Lee. “It’s unfair actually making other faculty investigate when they have a day job,” she said.

“That’s always going to be unfair on everyone. That’s unfair on the investigator and it’s unfair on the complainant and the accused, because that investigator doesn’t have the time, so it will necessarily cause delays.”

Against that context, a number of top universities have hired staff with just one purpose: to investigate student sexual assault reports.

Manchester hired a “sexual violence and harassment response manager” in November 2018. The job is paid £41-51,000 a year, and deals exclusively with sexual misconduct allegations.

Durham hired one member of staff in this academic year, as did York.

Teesside and Keele universities also employ specific staff to probe sexual assault claims.

A job advert for a “deputy clerk to the proctors at Oxford”, shows the university looking for somebody to “conduct investigations sensitively and appropriately into student misconduct, including serious sexual misconduct.” The part-time post was filled in January 2020 with a pro-rata salary of £41-54,000.

At Newcastle, two staff, hired in April 2019 and November 2020, focus on investigating sexual misconduct.

The University of Nottingham specifically recruited a female “deputy conduct manager” in October 2020, in order to “ensure gender balance within sexual offences and domestic abuse’.

Other universities, including Cambridge, Bath, and Nottingham Trent have staff who investigate all kinds of student misconduct, not just sexual misconduct.

Some universities pay thousands to private firms. Since August 2018, Sheffield has paid a total of £57,000 to have a firm, Intersol Global, investigate sexual assault reports made by students.

LSE paid Intersol Global £21,000 to investigate two cases in recent years, while the Royal College of Music forecasts a £7,000 spend with the company this academic year

De Montfort paid a company named Shakespeare Martineau between £8,000 and £10,000 for a single investigation.

Edinburgh Napier has paid £9,839 to a company named Anderson Strathern to investigate a sexual assault case.

Bath, Lincoln, London South Bank, all also use external companies, but would not reveal how much they had paid.

After the controversy around its handling of the group chat scandal, Warwick has appointed three external investigators, who they say could have police or military police backgrounds.

With constant reports of universities mishandling sexual assault cases emerging, Calvert-Lee says appointing expert investigators – whether private firms or in-house staff – is a good thing for students looking to get justice.

“It is better that they get someone who is trained and an expert in investigation. That is a positive step,” she said, but cautioned: “Is that going to guarantee an absolutely perfect bias-free outcome for the complainant? No. But can we ever reach that Nirvana? I’m not sure if we can.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Sexual assault reports at UK universities have more than doubled in four years

How rape threats in a boys group chat tarnished a university’s golden reputation

We asked 4,000 students about sexual assault on campus. These are the shocking results

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