The Anchor has received testimonies from students describing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault while studying at Falmouth University and the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campuses. Over 30 testimonies specifically described sexual assault.
The group Everyone’s Invited last month shared the names of 86 UK universities from which they had received anonymous testimonies from students detailing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Both Falmouth and Exeter were listed, and Exeter led with 65 testimonies submitted within one week. The group’s website claims that over 15,000 anonymous testimonies have been submitted since March.
Falmouth and Exeter received further attention last month as local police began investigating the existence of an alleged Falmouth WhatsApp group promoting 24 April as a national “Rape Day”. These rumours were widely condemned by students on social media.
In a survey conducted by the Anchor, the majority of respondents had either experienced sexual harassment or assault while at university in Cornwall or knew someone who had.
“In the daytime I feel safe but as soon as the sun goes down, not at all”
Students frequently described catcalling, groping, drink spiking, inappropriate touching and kissing, attempted penetration, and other forms of sexual assault in local nightclubs and pubs during nights out. One female student said: “In the daytime I feel safe but as soon as the sun goes down, not at all.”
Students often explained that they were taken advantage of while intoxicated. One female student described being sexually assaulted while intoxicated and walking in Falmouth. “I remembered his face and had a massive panic attack when I next saw the man in the canteen at Falmouth uni of all places! Turns out he was a third-year student. He tried apologising to me, but I was so terrified and had really bad anxiety about being intimate with anyone for almost a year after that because I felt so violated”, she added.
Several male students also described their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. One said that another male student sexually assaulted him at an LGBT event. He added: “I also have PTSD and was raped in a separate incident. But in many ways, this incident felt worse than the rape I experienced, because unlike that time, it was in a public place and there were so many onlookers who did nothing to help me.”
Another said that he reported a woman who sexually assaulted him to police but did not not proceed, adding: “Everyone needs to condem sexual assault when it is against men or women. My family laughed at me that I was reporting what happened to the police!”
Students mentioned increasing the security presence on campus, discussing the issue more openly, mandatory consent education, and making student support more accessible as ways of tackling the problem.
A study by think tank the Higher Education Policy Institute and YouthSight published in April found that 58% of students supported passing a compulsory sexual consent test before starting higher education, and the Office for Students has called for universities to work harder to tackle sexual misconduct.
When the Anchor asked Exeter Vice-Chancellor Professor Lisa Roberts last month about an open letter, signed by over 600 students, calling for the university to mandate consent education during Freshers’ Week, she said that “it may be that we do put things in like some consent training”.
“there must be consequences to actions—the uni’s reputation is not above the lives of its students”
Although some students told us that action was taken following their report, others were dissatisfied with the university’s response. One female student said: “People can’t just get away with it, there actually have to be consequences for when assaults are reported. My housemate is still dealing with PTSD from being sexually assulted in first year, and I don’t think the guy even got a warning, he’s still at uni here.” She added that “there must be consequences to actions—the uni’s reputation is not above the lives of its students”.
The majority of students said that they did not report their experiences to the university. Reasons why included embarrassment, feeling that the incident was not serious enough, and expecting that nothing would be done about it. A female student said: “I don’t have proof that he assaulted me, and it’s just my word against his.” Another said: “The uni has access to support and does use it, but their system is a lot more complex than it could be, which can make support quite difficult to access as a student.”
Several female students described having been sexually assaulted by their flatmates. “The university’s response was very, very slow, and in the end, they let him walk away freely”, one said, adding: “I couldn’t focus for several weeks and waiting lists for counselling are very long. The only support I received was the chance to mitigate my deadlines as much as I needed to, which to be honest was already available for all students.”
Another said that “I never heard anything from the uni, Exeter claimed they were “sorting it”” and described how “the guy is still happily studying and has not been punished” and “even got an apology from the accommodation office for his “troubles””.
One female student said that she was inappropriately touched by a local student facilitator on an overseas field course. Despite reporting the incident to a lecturer, she heard nothing back. “I feel forgotten, and without closure, this continues to haunt me years later. This was only one of my experiences with assault at university. I’ve been groped, raped, but this one still hurts the most because I gave it my all to seek help, but apparently it still wasn’t enough”, she said, adding: “I cannot describe to you the pain and trauma it puts you through to even think about it, let alone find the courage to tell someone once.”
Another female student said that she was sexually harassed by a lecturer whom she had been warned about. She described how he “kept turning up at student party events, including house parties” and groped her on multiple occasions. She didn’t report her experience to the university, adding: “There are a lot of “have you got proof” questions, and with friends being unsuccessful in actually having the universities’ backing in these situations, it never seemed worth the hassle.”
On the university’s handling of their report, one student “felt like they just did it to tick a box and didn’t actually want to do anything about it”. A student who graduated last year said that they didn’t feel safe at university, adding: “The university doesn’t care about sexual assault and has hushed up every occasion I’ve heard about, including not expelling students who have been accused of sexual assault by other students.” “The university should publicly share information on sexual assault and misconduct. Several members of staff have been dismissed for being predators yet no public statement was ever released”, said another.
In response to this article, Falmouth University and the University of Exeter gave the Anchor a joint statement: “We are horrified to read these experiences of students in our community. The safety, security and wellbeing of our students is a priority for both institutions. We are clear that any harassment, assault, abuse or violence on our campuses will not be tolerated, all reports will be swiftly investigated and we have disciplinary processes in place to deal with anyone found guilty of such offences.
“We have a wide range of measures in place to tackle these issues and support anyone who is affected. Our on-campus Student Support team are fully trained and have established a Sexual Violence Network with local support agencies and statutory authorities, to ensure a joined-up response to any instances of concern, as well as to use insights into trends and utilise best practice. They also run events and campaigns to raise awareness about consent issues.
“We would encourage all students who witness or experience sexual assault or abuse to seek support from Student Services, the Students’ Union Advice Service or via Falmouth and Exeter Speak Out web pages.”
On behalf of the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union, SU President Welfare & Inclusivity Charlotte Agnew said: “To hear that the majority of respondents had experienced or knew somebody who had experienced sexual harassment or assault is shocking, but sadly not surprising. It’s heart-breaking and frustrating to hear that students are not being supported properly and falling through the cracks. We can see that the current system is clearly not working, and we need to move the conversation forward. It’s completely unacceptable. I have already started conversations with the universities and partners, and I will stand with students to do whatever it takes to lobby the need for impactful changes in personal safety on the Cornwall campuses.
“The universities need to listen to the issues and concerns students are raising and work more collaboratively to find a constructive and sensitive way of effecting a cultural change. Cultural change may seem big or impossible, but it is entirely possible through the means of educating one another and taking it a step at a time. This is an international issue, but we really can start these changes right on our doorstep on the Cornwall campuses.
“The SU and I, alongside the universities, always urge students to report any incidents. It’s okay to come forward, and there is help out there. If you need to speak to someone, please get in touch with our SU Advice team for confidential and compassionate support. Or feel free to come into the office and chat to a member of staff.”