Students who have been sexually harassed are afraid of reporting incidents to Scotland’s colleges and universities because there could be “academic consequences”, according to charity Zero Tolerance, which campaigns for an end to violence against women.

Statistics obtained by the Sunday Herald under Freedom of Information laws show fewer than 50 incidents of sexual misconduct were recorded by colleges and universities in each of the last three years, a figure which indicates underreporting, according to the National Union of Students (NUS).

Both Zero Tolerance and the NUS have called on colleges and universities to ensure students can report sexual misconduct on campus without fear of reprisals.

Research by the National Union of Students carried out in 2014 estimates that one in four students had received unwelcome sexual advances. And a new study released last week found that sexual misconduct by university staff is rife. A survey of almost 2,000 students found four in 10 had experienced unwelcome advances and assault by staff, including sexualised comments, inappropriate touching and rape.

However, research by the Sunday Herald found that just 134 incidents were reported to colleges and universities in the last three years. Of Scotland’s 19 universities, 12 responded to an FoI request. They dealt with 105 complaints, the majority against students. Of Scotland’s 20 colleges, 12 responded. They handled just 29 complaints. Some institutions recorded no incidents of sexual misconduct in three years.

Laura Tomson, co-director of Zero Tolerance, said: “These latest figures are deeply concerning, especially when we consider that they most likely do not represent the full scale of the issue. Many students, disproportionately female, may not report sexual misconduct for fear of academic consequences – this could be loss of access to teaching, references or resources.

“Universities and colleges must ensure that allegations of misconduct are treated with the severity they deserve, as well as putting in place robust policies and mechanisms that allow students to report sexual harassment without fear of reprisal.”

NUS report Power In The Academy, which revealed that four in 10 students were targeted by staff, also found that just 10 per cent of students reported the incidents. The study warned that the sector is “not currently a safe environment”, with many students facing “sexualised touching, comments or even threats from staff”.

The union’s 2014 survey of 2,000 students found that one in four were victims of inappropriate touching and groping. More than a third of female students said they had faced unwelcome sexual advances. And 60 per cent of respondents said they were not aware of any codes of conduct which dealt with sexually inappropriate behaviour.

NUS Scotland women’s officer Shuwanna Aaron said: “Institutions need to do more to tackle sexual misconduct, creating zero tolerance cultures on campuses, and educating on issues like consent and bystander intervention.”

When asked why very few incidents are reported to colleges and universities, Aaron said: “Official figures fail to capture the full picture for a number of reasons. Students can be unsure of where to report or can lack confidence that their reports will be handled appropriately. Equally, some students will have reservations around reporting because of the shameful victim blaming culture which exists in society.

“Institutions must take action to break down these barriers that prevent students coming forward. That doesn’t just mean well-signposted reporting procedures, but also implementing effective pathways for investigative and disciplinary actions.

“Students coming forward need to have access to specialist support from the moment they make a report, throughout any investigation and disciplinary procedures, and beyond.”

A pilot project at the University of Strathclyde is developing a “toolkit” to challenge gender-based violence at campuses in Scotland.

Researchers are also carrying out a survey which aims to “better understand the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence,” according to Annie McLaughlin, gender equality officer at the university.

She said: “Historically, there has been a lack of comprehensive data on the numbers of students affected by sexual violence and harassment. Evidence has been limited to surveys such as those carried out by NUS.

“Gender-based violence and harassment is an issue affecting the whole of society, university students and staff are therefore likely to experience it at similar rates to the general population. One in 10 women in Scotland has experienced rape and one in five women in Scotland has had someone try to make them have sex against their will.

“The Equally Safe in Higher Education project at the University of Strathclyde is generating new data on attitudes to and the extent of gender-based violence within Scottish higher education institutions and developing a toolkit to help prevent and challenge it across Scotland’s university campuses. This includes looking at centralised systems within universities for collating and recording data on sexual misconduct.”

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said Scotland’s higher education institutions “recognise their responsibilities to provide a safe and respectful environment”. Sim said there has been “a significant scaling-up of institutions’ responses” over the last year.

“There is a collective determination to work on prevention and intervention,” he added. “Our priority is to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward to make a disclosure knowing they will be believed and that they will receive the appropriate support. As we work towards achieving that it is inevitable that the number of reported incidences of misconduct will grow. This means more victims are seeking support and will allow universities to get a proper sense of the scale of the problem, in order to put the right level of resources in place.”

Shona Struthers, Colleges Scotland’s chief executive, said colleges have detailed policies and procedures in place to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment involving students or members of staff.

She added: “On the issue of possible underreporting of sexual harassment and offences, this may be reflective of a wider societal concern that some victims are reluctant to come forward, so we would encourage colleges to continually review their policies to ensure the best possible support mechanisms are in place to help imbue a safe environment for everybody and remove any barriers to victims reporting incidents.”

A spokesman for the University and College Union, which represents staff, said the union backs moves to “ensure gender-based violence is taken seriously and addressed whenever it occurs”.

“It’s important that anyone reporting allegations receive an appropriate response from the individual and institution they first speak to,” added the spokesman.

A spokeswoman for the Educational Institute of Scotland, which also represents staff, said: “While we cannot comment on the detail of any specific case, clearly it is essential that all institutions do all that they can to provide a safe and secure environment for students and staff. Any cases of alleged sexual misconduct must be treated both extremely seriously and with great sensitivity.”



The Herald:

RHIANNON SPEAR was a Creative and Cultural Studies student at the University of Glasgow from 2008 until 2012. The 27-year-old, who is now an SNP councillor in Glasgow and a law student, has spoken for the first time about her experiences.

"My experience of university was that rape culture was commonplace and male sexual aggression was normalised. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it since, trying to come to terms with that environment, and it has been a long process. I was sexually assaulted. I had naked pictures taken of me while I slept which were shared in group chats. That was common for girls, and people don't realise how common it is.

"Hyper heteronormative shows of masculinity by young men in their late teens and early 20s fuelled by lots of alcohol and a need to perform in front of friends. Groping hands, pulling off clothes and men exposing themselves to you on the dance floor in the union were all part of a night out.

"Then there were the darker things that happened behind closed doors which were definitely not consensual that I am only now coming to terms with. At one event a guy dragged me into a cupboard, exposed himself to me and demanded I had sex with him. I remember saying that I didn’t want to touch him, and I wanted to get out. I did get out and I wanted to report it at the time, but I knew there was no point. Then there was waking up to a guy having sex with me, I was sick as soon as I realised what was happening. I am only now able to call that what it really was.

"The most shocking thing for me is not my experience but that I believed this to be normal. Although coming to terms with my experience has been long, the Me Too and Time's Up campaigns have made it easier to talk about. It's confronting women and allowing them to talk about things that they have been taught by society for decades to suppress. It's slowly creating a redistribution of power and a national debate about consent. I think this conversation needs to be a part of education that allow for a better understanding of consent and sexual relations at a young age. Universities and colleges are a perfect place to start."

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: "The case study that has been used is from several years ago and does not make clear if help was sought from the university at the time. Our student unions have worked hard over the past few years to ensure that abusive and unwarranted sexual behaviour is seen to be wholly unacceptable, and in providing the means to report any incidents that have caused distress or harm. We would again stress that any student who has suffered sexual abuse should seek support. All allegations are treated seriously, and in confidence."


One woman, who is in her late 20s, has spoken to the Sunday Herald about her experiences with a senior academic on the condition that her name and the name of the institution is not revealed.

"I approached a senior academic to find about more about doing a PhD. We met for a coffee and it was very professional. We just talked about potential PHDs, projects and available funding. About six weeks later he started contacting me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using private messaging. I had posted about how I felt heartbroken about splitting up with my partner. He exploited that and began talking to me about his break up and how it made him feel. I thought it was odd, he was almost twice my age, but I also thought that it was nice to talk to someone who appeared to understand the sadness I was going through.

"He would also pick up on things I said publicly on social media, but continued to do so on private messages. It could be as simple as saying he liked the same book. But then he would say the characters were like us. From there, it turned into an intense online friendship. I was vulnerable and heartbroken at the time, and he exploited that. I agreed to meet again, just for a coffee. A couple of coffees turned into a date. The messages kept coming on social media. We ended up dating for a few months.

"After we broke up another woman who was also a in the early stages of academia told me he did the same thing with her. He contacted her at a time when she was vulnerable. She told me there are other people out there like us, with the same pattern of online conversation, innocent coffee and sexual relationships.

"The problem in academia doesn’t seem to be an overt thing, like sexual touching during office hours or official supervisory meetings. It’s the blurring of boundaries and using online tools to exploit people mentally and emotionally, leading them to sexual relationships. The early academic process is a lonely and vulnerable place and senior academics can prey on people in this position.

"In hindsight I think he saw my posts and I was groomed into a sexual relationship. It’s frustrating that I feel I can’t even speak publicly about this, because he is a senior academic with a platform and the protection of his powerful position. I’m mentally gaslighting myself and feel that it’s my fault for not knowing where the boundaries were."


A post-doctoral student has spoken to the Sunday Herald on the condition that she is not named.

"I think the biggest thing is that there is no obvious route to complain when things happen. Power structures favour the perpetrator and often when somebody speaks out, there is limited solidarity. I had issues with my PhD supervisor exploiting me and when I complained they blamed my mental health. This experience makes me think that people just don't report things because they see what happens to people who stand up to it. So, to me it’s no surprise people don’t make complaints.

"There is a power imbalance and I’ve seen it in colleges and universities – male lecturers pursuing female students, sometimes by contacting them on social media. Students have to put themselves out there and there are often coffees off campus with people in promoted posts, or professors. These people have got power, privilege and influence and they are often tasked with getting funding and writing grant applications which are the difference between you getting a teaching job or not.

"I believe that’s why people don’t put complaints in. I know of people who have complained and then they disappear from academia. Importantly, it isn't just the cliché of the creepy professor, perving over the students, it is the power games that are played out and the system favours it."

If you have been affected by any of these issues you can call Rape Crisis Scotland on 08088 01 03 02


University of Glasgow rector Aamer Anwar has called for an overhaul of the institution’s sexual misconduct reporting procedures after a Freedom of Information request revealed there were only 19 complaints in 10 years.

The human rights lawyer said the figure is a “gross underestimate” of the scale of the problem of sexual violence on campus and said all universities must publish figures which show the number of incidents.

Anwar said he has been contacted by students and staff about sexual harassment at the University of Glasgow. He previously exposed a catalogue of sexual harassment in the Scottish Parliament after victims reached out to him.

Anwar said: “Following my involvement in the expose of sexual harassment at the Scottish Parliament, I have become increasingly alarmed by the number of students and staff who have told me of sexual harassment at Glasgow University. Whilst the vast majority of the complainers lacked confidence to report incidents, those who did felt let down and further abused.

“It is clear that 19 incidents in 10 years in a university with more than 26,000 students and 7,000 staff is a gross underestimate of sexual violence on campus. The deep-rooted problem is that the vast majority of students still do not know what to do if they are sexually assaulted or harassed, but neither do many of the staff. How many more victims of sexual violence have to suffer in silence?

“The university and student groups have been working hard to resolve the issue, but it’s hit or miss. I think it’s time for radical solutions. Anonymous reporting needs to be introduced immediately and if universities had a legal duty to record and publish statistics on sexual harassment and violence then I suspect that would shake them out of their complacency. The last thing they would want to be is at the bottom of such a league table.”

He added: “Of course the bland response from universities will be ‘we takes all issues of any kind of harassment or abuse seriously and the wellbeing of students is extremely important, and we have robust reporting procedures in place’. Well I’m sorry, your policies are a failure and it’s time for a radical rethink.”

A University of Glasgow spokesman said a “detailed action plan” will tackle gender-based violence and “very significant efforts” have been made to prevent and eradicate sexual harassment.

He said students can “raise issues with their academic advisers, with specially trained Respect Advisers, or with the Students’ Representative Council.

The spokesman also raised the fact that Anwar did not attend a discussion about the issue on April 11. The spokesman added: “Since Anwar’s election as rector a year ago, we have repeatedly asked him to produce evidence of specific cases of sexual harassment. To date, he has not brought forward a single case. If Anwar has evidence that any form of abuse or assault has taken place, he must pass this on either to the university or to the police.”


The Sunday Herald asked Scotland’s colleges and universities how many complaints of inappropriate sexual misconduct and/or harassment were made in each of the last three years. We also asked for details of the allegations and if there was an investigation, if the matter was referred to police and what sanctions were taken against the perpetrator.

Fourteen of Scotland’s 19 universities responded. Twelve of Scotland’s 20 colleges responded. There were just 134 complaints in three years, despite surveys which indicate there is a much bigger problem of sexual misconduct on campuses.

  • Universities

University of Edinburgh

Complaints: 23

In 2014/15 two students made two separate formal complaints of sexual harassment against two members of staff. One was sacked and another left the university. In 2015/16 the university received two allegations of harassment and three allegations of assault. The assault allegations were by students against students. The harassment allegations were made by a student against a member of staff and, separately, by a member of staff against a colleague. In 2016/17 students made twelve allegations of assault against other students. The university received a further three complaints from students that a member of staff sexually harassed them and one complaint that a member of staff harassed a colleague. The university said it “may, depending on the circumstances, report allegations that a criminal offence has been committed to police” and they also “encourage students who have been convicted of an alleged criminal offence to report it to the police”.

University of Glasgow

Complaints: 19

The university dealt with 12 incidents of sexual assault and seven of sexual harassment in ten years. The university said the outcomes included “suspension, expulsion, fine, reprimand”. Four cases are currently under investigation.

Edinburgh Napier University

Complaints: at least 12

Edinburgh Napier University did not disclose the number of complaints but said there were fewer than five in each of the last three years. No further details were provided in order to prevent identification of those involved. The university said some of the consequences for perpetrators included a warning, additional training, and suspension.

University of Stirling

Complaints: 12

Six rape allegations against students were investigated by police in 2015/16 and one in 2014/15. Two allegations of sexual assault were also probed in 2014/15. Two allegations of sexual harassment by students were received in 2015/16 and a third sexual harassment allegation against a member of staff is currently under investigation.

University of Dundee

Complaints: 9

The university investigated one sexual misconduct allegation in 2014/15, three in 2015/16 and three in 2016/17, all against students. Two complaints against staff were investigated in 2016/17. Separately, two allegations of rape in student residences were made during 2015/16, which were investigated by police, and a former member of staff was the subject of criminal proceedings during 2014/15.

Robert Gordon University

Complaints: at least 8

The university received fewer than five complaints in 2015/16 and fewer than five in 2016/17. The exact number was not disclosed to prevent identification of those involved. There were no complaints in 2014/15.

University of Abertay

Complaints: 5

The university recorded one allegation against a student in 2015/16. The student was expelled then readmitted following an appeal. In this academic year three further complaints against students were recorded. A sexual harassment complaint against a male member of staff by a female colleague led the man’s dismissal.

University of Highlands and Islands

Complaints: 4

All related to incidents at the Inverness and Orkney campuses. Two complaints of sexual misconduct by students against students were recorded and reported to police, one of assault in 2015/16 and one of harassment in the current academic year. Both students were withdrawn. The university also investigated inappropriate behaviour by a member of staff in 2016/17 and they were given a formal warning and asked to apologise. A further complaint of “catcalling” in the current academic year could not be investigated because the student could not identify the perpetrators. Orkney campus would not disclose the number of incidents because it is “low” and the “information would be unfair for the purpose of the first data protection principle”.

University of Aberdeen

Complaints: 3

In 2015/16 the University of Aberdeen recorded a complaint by a member of staff against another member of staff and, separately, a student against a student. In the current academic year there was also a complaint by a student against another student.

The University of Strathclyde

Complaints: 3

In 2015/16 there was one complaint by a student against a member of staff and one complaint by a member of staff against another member of staff. In 2016/17 there was one complaint by a student against another student.

Glasgow School of Art

Complaints: 2

A member of staff resigned in 2015 after a student made an allegation on sexual harassment and, in 2016, a member of staff complained they were sexually assaulted by a colleague and a final written warning was issued.

Glasgow Caledonian University

Complaints: 2

Glasgow Caledonian University recorded one complaint of sexual assault against a student in 2016/17. The student was acquitted when the case came to court. A second allegation of sexual harassment made by a student against another student in this academic year led to the perpetrator’s expulsion after a hearing.

Heriot-Watt University

Complaints: 2

There were two allegations of sexual misconduct in three years. One allegation was made by a member of staff against a colleague, the second allegation was made by a student against a member of staff. Both were “formally investigated” but no further information was provided.

The University of the West of Scotland

Complaints: 1

In 2015/16 there was one complaint. No further information was provided about the complaint.

  • Colleges

North East Scotland College

Complaints: 8

The college recorded seven complaints against students, including three allegations of rape, two of “inappropriate touching” and two complaints about inappropriate communications which were of a sexual and threatening nature. All seven were referred to police. An eighth complaint by student that a member of staff used inappropriate sexual language was dealt with using college disciplinary procedures and the employee received a written warning.

West College Scotland

Complaints: 7

The college received six complaints of sexual misconduct and one of inappropriate behaviour in the last three years. All seven incidents were against students and were referred to police. Two individuals were charged, and one case was not proven when it reached court. Two incidents are still under investigation by police and three others led to expulsion from the college.

Glasgow Clyde College

Complaints: 5

In the current academic year there were five cases of inappropriate sexual misconduct and/or harassment between students. None of the cases were referred to police and the college conducted investigations through the student disciplinary procedure, and students were disciplined. None were expelled.

Fife College

Complaints: 4

In 2016 the college investigated an allegation that a member of staff was harassed by a colleague but the complaint was not upheld. In 2017 two separate complaints about “inappropriate contact” were made by students against students and both perpetrators received written warnings. An investigation is also ongoing into inappropriate comments made by students against staff.

City of Glasgow College

Complaints: 3

City of Glasgow college received three complaints between 2015 and 2018. One complaint was by a student against a member of staff, who was later dismissed. The college also received a complaint from a member of staff against a student, who was subject to sanctions which the college said prevented them “approaching certain areas of the college”. There was also “close monitoring by senior staff”. There was one other complaint involving two members of staff which resulted in no action as the allegation was in an anonymous report.

Forth Valley College

Complaints: 1

There was one incident where a female student accused a female member of staff of making inappropriate comments to the student. A full investigation led to a final written warning being issued to the member of staff. This matter was not reported to the police and the staff member was not dismissed.

Dundee and Angus College

Complaints: 1

One student was expelled after the college received an allegation of sexual assault and the incident was referred to police.

Edinburgh College

Complaints: undisclosed “due to the low numbers involved”.

South Lanarkshire College

Complaints: 0

Depute Principal Angus Allan said: “There have been no such cases or allegations.”

Borders College

Complaints: 0

Vice Principal Peter D Smith said: “I can advise that Borders College has had no such cases.”

West Lothian College

Complaints: 0

Colin Miller, Head of External Engagement, said: “West Lothian College has a nil response to your request.”

Newbattle Abbey College

Complaints: 0