Ben HaywardSeptember 2nd
2019

The number of students at top universities being investigated for posting offensive comments online has nearly trebled in the last two years, figures have revealed. 

Through a number of Freedom of Information Requests, The Independent has discovered that university students are increasingly being subjected to racism, sexual harassment, homophobia and sexual violence online. 

Although more students are now reporting the incidents, it is feared universities aren’t doing enough to punish offenders, with many only issued with warnings, asked to write letters of apology, or told to do volunteering work.

In one of the most high profile cases, Warwick University has been criticised for its handling of the so-called ‘rape chat’ scandal - which saw male students make sexually violent remarks about their female peers on a Facebook group - after a woman referred to in the group was made to sit an exam alongside one of the perpetrators.

The new data uncovered by The Independent has prompted calls for universities to do more to combat online harassment with the National Union of Students (NUS) saying sexual harassment on social media is ‘normalised’ amid concerns that the problem remains underreported. 

The Independent found that the majority of Russell Group universities have investigated inappropriate language on group chats over the past three years, with incidents including harassment, bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia and sexual misconduct.

Data from 11 Russell Group universities showed there were 11 incidents reported in 2016-17, compared to 32 incidents in 2018-19 - a rise of 191%

Rachel Watters, women’s officer at the NUS, told The Independent she believes lessons addressing misogyny, racism and homophobia should be offered as part of the curriculum.  

Ms Watters said: “Unfortunately the poor handling of these types of issues [by universities] makes it harder for students to come forward in the future.”

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “Misuse of social media and online platforms has become increasingly widespread in society. Universities need to consider the specific threats online harassment and cyberbullying pose as part of their duty of care to all students.”

A Russell Group spokesperson said: “The Russell Group strongly rejects harassment and abuse in all its forms, which is reflected in our universities’ investigating instances of offensive comments made by students online. 

“We firmly believe that UK campuses should be places of safety and respect and this extends to interaction online and via social media.”

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