If you raise a formal allegation of bullying or misconduct, your University will have to investigate.

Studies show that bullying is endemic in Universities. A few examples among many will suffice. In one of the largest studies (14,677 participants), carried out in 2014 by University and College Union (UCU), almost half of respondents said they experienced bullying at work. In a survey carried out amongst astronomy & geophysics researchers, 44% of respondents had suffered bullying and harassment in the workplace within the preceding 12 months. Bullying is rampant at Universities but — mysteriously — University Human Resources departments are chronically unable to identify any bullying.

A crucial role in this bizarre state of affairs is played by the investigator. If you complain about bullying, your university will carry out an investigation, with either internal or external personnel.

The Post Office Scandal, played out in front of our eyes on youtube here, has shown us how internal investigators behave. They have been characterised as little more than ‘thugs in suits’, acting on behalf of their employer to convict the innocent sub-postmasters of theft. It is an extreme case only in its consequences. Any internal investigator is subject to pressures from his or her employer and will therefore never cause any real trouble. The bully may be found guilty of “unwise behaviour”, but certainly nothing serious warranting disciplinary action. More likely is complete exoneration, for the reasons diagnosed by Prof Athene Donald FRS here.  “If direction from the top suggests that the complainant is more expendable than the accused, there may be a subliminal steer towards finding in favour of the latter. It is too easy to conclude that the evidence is not strong enough to prove anything definitively

More interesting is the role of the external investigators. They may be external, but they are rarely independent.

Universities may use an external company specialising in workplace dispute resolution. One company in particular — let us call them the ‘Sherlock Junior Co‘ — is notorious for repeatedly finding for the University in workplace disputes. Their investigators often have no suitable training other than a bland HR/admin background. So, for example, if they are required to judge whether mental ill-health is due to bullying, they have no medical or psychiatric expertise and can gaily & straightforwardly exonerate on the basis of ignorance. The investigators are not legal experts, so they cannot assess, for example, the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disability according to the Equality Act (2010). Of course, this suits everyone. Dispute resolution companies who find employers guilty won’t get any more contracts for future work!

If the matter is very serious — perhaps a senior academic has been accused of misdemeanours — then your University may hire a barrister, say Mr Pork-Scratchings. Universities love barristers with a double-barrelled name, as this normally ensures the correct “establishment” viewpoint. Most barristers with a busy practice are not so interested in examining disciplinary matters in a University. A barrister slumming in a University is probably doing it — shall we say — in the absence of more lucrative calls on his or her time. Despite their self-asserted reputation for integrity, plenty of barristers are able and willing to bend the rules for their clients (for example, as shown in the Post Office Scandal). They are just as malleable as an internal investigator. They routinely put clients’ interests first before the interests of justice, before integrity, independence, honesty, using the law & confidentiality as a tool to take advantage of people.

Whether a dispute resolution company or a barrister is used, an investigation is carried out and a report is written. It is provided to a Responsible Person in the University (normally a senior academic). The report is advisory, so the decision to exonerate lies with the Responsible Person. This ludicrous state of affairs means that everyone now avoids any responsibility for what happens. The author of the Report — whether the Sherlock Junior Co or Mr Pork-Scratchings — can claim (fairly enough) that the Report was only advisory. The Responsible Person can claim (fairly enough) that he or she has no reason not to believe the “thorough and impartial” Report. Complain to one & they blame the other.

And this is how we end up with a state of affairs in which surveys conclude bullying is widespread in Universities, but no bullies can ever be identified and no-one ever takes responsibility.

As always, if the culture is rotten, then an institution will cover up.

The culture — whether in a public body like a university or a corporate body like the Post Office — is set by those at the top. In the Post Office Scandal, what happened was the responsibility of the Post Office senior executives, like Paula Vennells, Adam Crozier & Alan Cook. It is the Vice Chancellors and Registrars of our Universities who bear the responsibility for the rotten culture in our Universities.

Categories: Blog


Anon · 14 April 2024 at 19:55

It’s such a cynical sham and so clearly artificial, performative, and corrupt; how universities deal with covering these things up that it’s all very pantomime-esque, isn’t it? (Incidentally, I hear that some of those “unidentified” perpetrators are even partial to a good old panto).

Perhaps these “investigators”, whether external or internal (including the unofficial gossip mill “investigators” among the academics themselves…), should just go full throttle and crack out their rouge, multicolored wigs and dust off their Widow Twankey costumes. “Well, my dearies, after much ado and a spot of tea, I’ve had a snoop and found our beloved university as innocent as a spring daisy! Repeat after me: ‘University knows best, there’s no bullying going on here!’ Louder now, boys and girls, let’s hear it! I can’t hear you!”

It might even be funny, in a depressing and dystopian kind of way, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have destroyed lives and there are people who have actually died—lying six feet under—due to these institutions and their toxic organizational cultures.

    Anon · 29 April 2024 at 17:27

    I understand the magnitude of this problem and the sheer lack of research exploring UK universities., I imagine most people who tackle this area get discouraged.

    It is a culture that needs to use a “foot in the door approach” to show them rather than tell. It feels like cognitive dissonance, with most believing “it doesn’t happen at our university”.

    The dignity at work policies are not worth the paper they are written on. We don’t have a robust definition of workplace bullying relevant to UK Higher education establishments. With that in mind, how do they assess claims of bullying (hold a wet finger in the wind, maybe)?

      Anonymous · 1 May 2024 at 15:18

      In terms of your first point, there’s been significant sociological research on mobbing within higher education, including some in the United Kingdom. However, compared to countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Turkey, there’s been less research and recognition in the UK.

      Does this indicate a greater denial of the issue’s seriousness in UK higher education and an unwillingness to address it?

      Of course, it does.

      I’ve corresponded with many of these researchers mentioned above over the years, and pretty much all of them have said that they find it discouraging to tackle these issues (though they usually put it in stronger terms).

      Nevertheless, I think there is reason for cautious optimism, too, as there has never been as much awareness surrounding this issue as currently, nor as many advocacy groups to tackle it (for example, the Academic Parity Movement and 21 Percent group) as there is today.

      Anonymous · 1 May 2024 at 15:46

      Senior management at most, if not all, universities are fully aware that this is happening at lower levels. The problem is that they usually engage in it themselves. So, in most cases, you end up with a highly toxic ecology of bullying as a top-down problem that cascades to infect everything down to the undergraduate level and perhaps even the support staff.

      With HR, it’s not disbelief that it is occurring; it’s that they either don’t care, don’t know what to do because they have only ever been trained to serve the interests of the institutions, or don’t want their jobs to be on the line.

      In the case of senior academics, cognitive dissonance doesn’t come into the picture (though it may be feigned by some); the target is merely seen as a “liability,” whereas the perpetrator, if they themselves are not senior academics, is typically viewed as an asset and their behavior sometimes even tacitly encouraged. The perpetrators will usually spend many years brown-nosing higher-ups among senior academics. They may, in some cases, be a “star scientist,” bringing in research grants and prestige so they will be seen as far more valuable than the target and protected even if their behavior is implicated in causing a lawsuit, reputational damages, or even suicide.

      Cognitive dissonance about a perpetrator or an institution is usually most noticeable in bystanders to a mobbing. Due to the moral discomfort of what they have witnessed or the guilt and shame of their own cowardice (most do not want to be the next target or for their careers to suffer any retaliatory attacks from the perpetrator and their enablers), they will typically be in denial. There’s been a lot of research into the bystander effect of mobbing, particularly in recent years, especially in the context of higher education, so I’d recommend checking it out.

Anon · 15 April 2024 at 21:39

I find this article very interesting. From my research, it looks like the guidelines used in cases of bullying and harassment aren’t sophisticated for the types of bullying experienced in the higher education workplace. I would like to ask people if you could change one thing about these investigations, what would it be? I think now is the time to hear the victim’s experiences.

    Anonymous · 16 April 2024 at 17:27

    As this blog suggests, there isn’t just one thing that needs to be changed about these “investigations.” The whole premise of a university conducting an internal “investigation” on its own staff (often willingly by the Widow Twankeys among their own staff) or hiring an external “investigator,” who has already reached a conclusion in favor of the innocence of the perpetrator and institution for a paycheck (a progression from a peasant mob to a witch hunter finder general), is patently absurd and highlights the level of corruption that exists within UK higher ed.

    We all know how the tired, cynical game works and what the outcome is for the target (I don’t like the word victim, and I won’t use it). The perpetrator and the institution are never ever to blame and have done absolutely nothing wrong—nothing, nada, niente, period. In fact, by some mysterious underlying rule of the universe, some sort of inscrutable Tao whose laws are known only to a priestly class of senior administrators and academics who alone possess the powers of divination, the perpetrators and institutions are humanly incapable of doing anything wrong or having ever engaged in any kind of misconduct.

    To even question this would be akin to questioning whether the planet revolves around the sun or stating that the earth is flat. It would be just too absurd to contemplate, utterly laughable, something only a deeply ignorant person with some sort of chip on their shoulder would even contemplate because, as everybody knows, things like that don’t happen at X because there is already a “dignity at work” policy in place.

    After all, didn’t you watch the video with the rousing Vangelis background music and a variety of staff announcing, in no uncertain terms, with carefully mannered expressions that at once summon the poise of a US president commenting on an atrocity committed in some far-off land and a weary recognition and condemnation of the brutality of the human condition and yet proclaim the brotherhood and dignity of man, that bullying is not tolerated in this institution?

    Haven’t you seen the cult-like publicity photos with all of the students waving their hands in unison and smiling in ecstasy? Haven’t you seen the Twitter posts of the staff and their stalwart commitment to social justice? Well then… there’s your proof. No bullying, mobbing, or harassment has ever occurred or will occur in the institution, and the case is well and truly closed and no longer open for discussion.

AnotherVictim · 16 April 2024 at 07:25

“Repeat after me: ‘University knows best, there’s no bullying going on here!’ Louder now, boys and girls, let’s hear it! I can’t hear you!”

A little louder!

We don’t want to have to ask the Director of Human Resources to carry out an investigation into your poor morale

    Anonymous · 16 April 2024 at 17:54

    That’s right, we wouldn’t want any unnecessary fuss, now would we my little lambs? After all, the Director of Human Resources and the Dean of the department have quite a full plate, and we wouldn’t want to burden them with conducting any unnecessary investigations or for them to have to bring in an external investigator, now would we?… Let’s hear it again one more time ! Just a tad louder this time, my lovelies. We wouldn’t want anyone thinking we’re not positively bursting with school spirit and collegiality, now would we, my poppets?

21percent.org · 16 April 2024 at 14:22

Reposted from LinkedIn, thanks to Jason

This was my bullying experience back in 2013 feel free to view


Tour of Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology and Past Experience

    Anonymous · 16 April 2024 at 19:04

    I’m glad to hear Jason overcame his trauma and has experienced some catharsis in the years since. It seems that his problems stemmed from his classmates and friends rather than from a perpetrator among the academic staff themselves, and that he’s got Asperger syndrome. So, though I feel empathy for what he went through, I don’t personally relate to his situation.

    It is worth mentioning that in some cases and in some institutions, there can be a hellish combination of mobbing from both academic staff and students, with students informally enlisted (not all that hard to do considering that they are pawns to professors anyway and there’s a lot of group psychology, social proof and in-group/out-group dynamics in academia) in a sort of divide-and-conquer strategy.

    For example, in the case of Janet Harper, her students were actively turned against her and encouraged to pile in on and mob her. It happens to both professors and even to students themselves and its a very vicious and ruthlessly intelligent strategy to try to damage and eliminate somebody.

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