A piece in today’s Times by Rosemary Bennett, Education Editor:
Cambridge University is considering a demand from students for it to lower the burden of proof in disciplinary cases amid claims that sexual predators are not being held to account.
More than 800 students have signed an open letter saying that the system “actively discourages” those affected from coming forward because of the high threshold. The university has previously admitted that it has a “significant problem” with sexual misconduct after almost 200 complaints.
At present the university relies on the criminal standard of proof — beyond reasonable doubt — for all disciplinary cases other than ones relating to fitness to study. Those seeking change say that the civil standard of proof — based on the balance of probabilities — should be enough.
Most complaints reported by students involved misconduct by fellow students. Cambridge has put more resources into measuring the scale of the problem than most universities.
The open letter to Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor, says that “upholding a criminal standard of proof actively discourages survivors and victims of sexual harassment, rape and assault from engaging with the disciplinary procedure”. Students said that changing the system “will give survivors and victims of sexual assault more confidence to access it”.
They added that “by requiring cases to be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, the university is implying that there is unlikely to be consequences for perpetrators in disciplinary cases pertaining to sexual misconduct, unless the survivor goes to the police”.
Students told Professor Toope that the criminal standard of proof placed “undue burden on someone who has experienced a traumatic event”. The letter was written by the Cambridge University Student Union Women’s Campaign. However, according to the student newspaper Varsity, the university committee in charge of discipline said it was unclear whether the letter represented the view of the broader student body.
The Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA) said that if “the student body wants the university to use the balance of probability as the standard of proof when considering allegations of student misconduct” then it “should be accepted by the university community”. However, it said that it was “unclear” whether this was “the view of the student body”.
The OSCCA has released a series of proposals to make the rules “clear and accessible” for students. Its consultation document noted the open letter to the vice-chancellor about changing the standard of proof.
In February the university released figures for sexual misconduct complaints after creating an anonymous reporting system, which has since been adopted by other institutions.
Of the 173 complaints 119 were allegations by students of misconduct by other students. Two students have made complaints about staff and seven staff members have complained about the actions of colleagues.
Graham Virgo, professor of English private law and pro-vice-chancellor for education at Cambridge, said at the time: “It supports our belief that we have a significant problem involving sexual misconduct — what we now need to ensure is that those who have been affected receive the support and guidance they need.”
The University of Cambridge declined last night to comment on the letter or the issues it raised, saying that it was engaged in a consultation process.
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