Over 30,000 students victim of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour

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There’s been a heated debated about sexual harassment in the Netherlands lately, following scandals involving Ajax director Marc Overmars and hosts of the Dutch version of singing competitiom The Voice. But similar situations happen at universities as well, so much so that the Education Inspectorate decided to conduct research on the matter last year. The most famous cases concern the Art Academy, in the Hague, and the Amsterdam Fashion Institute.

The Dutch cabinet has announced plans to do more to combat sexual harassment and abuse, but there are other types of inappropriate behaviour, such as intimidation and discrimination.

Now the Inspectorate has pusblished a factsheet summarising the results of a survey of approximately 1,500 students. The main takeaway: most incidents do not come to the fore.

Most respondents deem their study programme safe enough, insofar as students dare to express their opinions and teachers treat them with respect. However, seven percent of respondents think otherwise and another eight percent have witnessed bullying and discrimination in their studies.

Discrimination when looking for an internship tends to be less visible (62 percent of respondent had no opinion about that), but that doesn’t make it any less common: about one in five students have heard about such a case or have gone through it themselves.

33,000 students
As for inappropriate behaviours, two percent of students prefer not to say anything about it, but four percent reports having experienced it themselves at least once. In the case of this particular survey, four percent means only sixty people, but if we extend that percentage to all students in the country, that amounts to 33,000 students.

The confidential counsellors at Utrecht University say they have the impression that more people have come forward to talk about cases of inappropriate behaviour since last year. In 2021, the counsellors received 20 reports, up from 14 in 2020. This year, there have been five so far. According to the counsellors, students tend to talk to a teacher, tutor or study advisor first. Afterwards, they often take to the counsellor for advice. That was the case in three out of the five cases reported this year.

“A shocking number”, says Ama Boahene, chair of the Dutch Student Union. “We need to take action to prevent stundents from becoming victims of inappropriate behaviours”. She suggests improving the complaints procedure and offering workshops on the subject.

Lisanne de Roos, Boahene’s counterpart at the Dutch Student Association, calls for improved monitoring of students’ safety. “Each student that experiences such a thing is a student too many”.

A monitoring process seems justified, considering about half of the cases were attributed to employees of the university. Besides, the problem remains mostly invisible: although the majority of victims talk about it with someone inside or outside their educational institution, about 25 percent of them keeps silent. Only three out of sixty respondents filed an official complaint, of which one went to the police.

Asked to explain why so few students file an official complaint, half of the respondents said that wouldn’t lead to anything and twenty percent said they don’t know where to do it. Some students dismiss their complaints as “not being serious enough”.

After the survey, the inspectorate reached to a few students to hear their stories in more detail. One of them said: “I talked to the manager of the teacher who intimidated me, as well as the employee in charge of such complaints. I found that procedure so unplesant that I decided not to go on with an official complaint”. Another one said: “I was advised not to share my experience with others, especially not with the media”. 

The study has its limitations, admits the inspectorate. For starters, the response rate was low: 15 percent of the 10,000 higher education students approached. It would perhaps be useful to conduct the same survey again, in order to also obtain answers from target groups considered “hard to reach”.

Not enough students with a migrant background answered the survey, so the inspectorate can’t say much about the group. Students from the sectors of Economy and Behaviour & Society are also underrepresented, as are students who have been at the university for more than four years.

But the results the inspectorate did get allow it to conclude that institutions should divulge their complaints procedure more and make it more accessible. The inspectorate is soon going to publish another factsheet about how students perceive the procedure.

Furthermore, higher education institutions should monitor safety a lot better, and they should do so both at the institutional and the national levels. “Being transparent about the figures and providing an overview of risk factors are two initiatives that could make a preventive contribution to safety in Dutch higher education”, writes the inspectorate, adding that institutions should commission an independent assessment of their corporate culture whenever there’s an indication of harassment of inappropriate behaviour.

The study itself does not define what “inappropriate” means, leaving it up to students to describe what they mean. A spokesperson for the inspectorate states that this is just the first of many studies to come. The organisation is also conducting thorough research into the fashion and art programmes that made headlines. “We’re going to dig deeper in those studies, verifying what exactly happened and what has been done about it”.