Students at top universities investigated for offensive online remarks nearly trebles, figures suggest

The number of students at top universities who have been investigated for offensive comments made on social media group chats has nearly trebled in two years, The Independent can reveal. 

The figures, from freedom of information requests, suggest that students at universities are increasingly being subjected to racism, sexual harassment, homophobia and sexual violence online. 

But in many cases, the perpetrators have only been issued with warnings. While others have been asked to write letters of apology, or told to do volunteering work, as punishment.  

It comes after the Warwick University came under fire for its handling of a “rape chat” scandal where male students made sexually violent remarks about female peers on a Facebook group. 

A woman mentioned in the chat was forced to sit an exam alongside one of the perpetrators in the group, which also contained racist remarks, despite efforts to be placed elsewhere. 

The data from The Independent has prompted calls for universities to do more to tackle harassment online amid concerns that the numbers could be much worse due to underreporting.

The National Union of Students (NUS) says sexual harassment on social media is “normalised” on campus and they argue universities are not doing enough to address “harmful” behaviours.

The University of Warwick is not the only Russell Group university that has come under the spotlight in recent months.

Earlier this year, a medical school student at the University of Sheffield was investigated after posting messages describing women in derogatory sexual terms in a social media group chat.

And last year, a prestigious law society at the University of Exeter was disbanded after a number of its members made racist comments in a private WhatsApp group.

An analysis by The Independent has found that the majority of Russell Group universities have investigated inappropriate language on social media group chats over the past three years. 

These incidents include harassment, bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia and sexual misconduct. 

Among the 11 Russell Group universities who provided comparable data, there were 11 incidents reported to the institutions in 2016-17, compared to 32 incidents in 2018-19 – a rise of 191 per cent. 

And in just one year, the number of incidents rose by 45 per cent, with 22 incidents reported in 2017-18.

But the scale of the problem is likely to be greater, according to the NUS who say underreporting occurs as students fear they will not be taken seriously and they’ll have to come into contact with perpetrators. 

Rachel Watters, women’s officer at the NUS, told The Independent: “Unfortunately the poor handling of these types of issues [by universities] makes it harder for students to come forward in the future.”

She argues that lessons addressing misogyny, racism and homophobia should be embedded in the curriculum – and universities should offer consent workshops in Freshers Week. 

But the issue not only affects young people in universities. In June, a study revealed secondary school heads in England reported the highest level of cyberbullying compared to other countries.

A recent survey found that just under half of UK parents think their child’s school should ban phones.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said online harassment of school pupils was “definitely a growing concern” among headteachers. 

He said: “I’m certainly hearing that younger children possess phones. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if children of a younger age are both being subjected to, and are subjecting others to, inappropriate messages.”

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A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson: “Misuse of social media and online platforms has become increasingly widespread in society and with a near-universal reach among 16-24 year olds in the UK, universities need to consider the specific threats online harassment and cyberbullying pose as part of their duty of care to all students.

“Addressing online harassment is inherently complex since much of the harassment occurring in online spaces comes from anonymous sources.”

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.”

Additional reporting by Lucy O’Brien


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