Oxford’s tutorial system is the envy of the world. As students we get to live and work in close-knit colleges and receive personal tuition in small groups.
But sometimes things go wrong. Tutors can, knowingly or unknowingly, harass students, making them feel uncomfortable and unhappy.
The results of an OxStu survey have revealed that many students are unhappy with their tutors, but do not take action. Fourteen percent of respondents agreed with the statement “I have been verbally harassed by a tutor.”
Yet 63 percent of those who have been harassed said they would not report their tutor, as they did not feel it would make a difference. One in eight said they were worried about the consequences of reporting a tutor.
The problem may run deeper. Dani Quinn, OUSU VP for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, said that in her experience many students do not know what harassment is.
“If you give them examples, they’ll say, yes, I’ve experienced that, or my friend has experienced that, but they don’t like to say the word harassed,” she said.
So what is harassment? Colleges have different definitions, but the University defines harassment as “unwanted and unwarranted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”
One respondent to our survey said he had been “told that I am hopelessly inadequate and shouldn’t be at Oxford.” Another said her tutor “pretended she couldn’t understand what I was saying because of my Irish accent.”
If a student does have a problem, the obvious place to report it is their college. In fact, University policy states: “Any complaints against college staff relating to college teaching or supervision will be dealt with under college procedures. ”
But any senior person in a student’s college could well have a conflict of interest, OUSU argues.
“Often an SCR member will be more interested in getting on with another SCR member than being uncomfortable because of an issue with a student,” Quinn said.
OUSU is working on trying to change that, but it is a difficult task. Colleges are supposed to record complaints and summarise them at the end of each year. Of the 30 colleges we asked, 11 responded saying they had no formal complaints. Only one had recorded a complaint.
“We don’t know anything, so we can’t do anything,” Quinn said.
All colleges are legally obliged to have a harassment policy, but they vary widely in their scope and utility.
Somerville’s policy, for instance, states that students with non-academic problems should “take a complaint… to the Domestic Bursar, or Treasurer or Principal. Students can be accompanied by a fellow JCR member of their choice.”
There is no mention of what assistance students might seek outside of the college. There are also worries that those appointed to help students in trouble are not properly trained.
A college welfare advisor, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the University Counselling Service trains all college welfare teams on a 30-hour course.
But because the course is University-wide it is unable to deal with college-specific issues, and trainees often have an overblown impression of their abilities.
“A major difficulty is that because you’ve spent so much time – 30 hours – doing the course, you get the impression you’re a trained counsellor, which you are definitely not,” the advisor told us.
The University has 250 harassment advisors. These are appointed people at colleges or in departments.
A University spokesperson said training sessions are run for new advisors, as well as refresher sessions for existing advisors, every term.
“Advisors are able to ask for advice and support on dealing with sensitive issues directly from the Equalities and Diversities Unit,” he said.
But OUSU VP Jonny Medland thinks those advisors are ill-suited to the job.
“The Harassment Advisors Network is meant to provide support for students but consists of largely untrained advisors who frequently do not know the details of the procedures they’re meant to be helping with,” Medland said.
Medland says progress is being made: “ Colleges will shortly look at improving their harassment policies, and we’ve also helped over 30 students directly with harassment cases since July of last year.”
“If you have experienced harassment, you can speak to OUSU’s Student Advice Service confidentially.”
Two current students spoke anonymously to The OxStu about their experiences at Oxford last year.
One tutor at our college was verbally abusive towards a number of students studying my subject. She purposefully made the ‘weaker’ individuals on the course feel stupid; one girl in particular was shouted down every time she opened her mouth. This girl complained, and nothing was done.
The tutor’s behaviour continued the next term with other students. She was unprofessional to the degree that she shared confidential medical and personal information about some students to others. She also commented on the physical appearance of students.
After making a formal complaint, we were told the tutor would no longer be teaching us.
I was having academic difficulties and was pulled into meetings at only a few hours notice with the Dean and Senior Tutor. Our college has a procedure for those who have fallen behind with academic work. But they claimed some of the meetings we had were unofficial so they did not have to follow procedure in those meetings. Some evidence against me was based on hearsay. They told me there was a rumour I was an alcoholic, which isn’t true.
There was no-one not tied into college I could talk to – the Dean is responsible for both discipline and welfare. It was also hard to get work done when I was stressed trying to deal with the disciplinary system.
Fortunately the situation has since improved, and I have new tutors who are happy with my work.