There is a need for more statistics on bullying, discrimination, harassment & victimisation in academia. Existing surveys are either restricted to certain subject areas (eg astronomy & geophysics) and/or curiously unavailable (eg EPSRC’s Report on “Understanding the status of underrepresented groups in the Information and Communication Technologies” which examined computer science and engineering). The Union and College Union (UCU) carried out a valuable survey in 2012. It is the largest to date and showed a distressing picture of widespread abusive behaviour and workplace bullying in Universities. However, it is now over a decade old.

Data on bullying & harassment are not difficult to gather, if the will is there. The universities themselves will benefit from such data in developing policies to deal with these matters. The 21 Group is interested in working with Universities in understanding & tackling these persistent problems.

So, the 21 Group is writing to all UK universities requesting answers to the following questions under the Freedom of Information Act (2000). The data are clearly in the public interest. We look forward to cooperation with universities in tackling this scourge.

1 How many reports of bullying, discrimination, harassment or victimisation were communicated to university HR between January 1 2019 and January 1 2024?

2 How many of these reported incidents were resolved at the informal or mediation stage? How many of these are currently unresolved? 

3 How many of these reported incidents proceeded to formal investigation? 

4 How many of the incidents which proceeded to formal investigation were i) upheld or substantiated; ii) partially upheld or substantiated; iii) ruled unsubstantiated?

5 How many complaints were unresolved because the complainant or perpetrator had left the institution?

6 For grievances in the formal stage, how many investigations were  conducted by external organisations or lawyers/barristers on behalf of the university? 

7 For cases under points (1) and (3), respectively, what is the average duration of time from a) the point of initial reporting to b) final case resolution? 

8 How many non-disclosure agreements in relation to reports of bullying, discrimination, harassment or victimisation did the university sign in the period from January 1 2019 to January 1 2024?

9 What is the sum of the settlement money that has been paid in relation to the non-disclosure agreements in point (8)?

10 What is the annual legal cost incurred in responding to complaints of bullying, discrimination, harassment or victimisation during the period from January 1 2019 to January 1 2024?

Categories: Blog


Anonymous · 28 April 2024 at 21:44

I wish the 21 Percent Group the very best of luck in their survey, and I hope that universities will recognize that this is an endemic problem within higher education that has got to be addressed and cannot be covered up. However, I can’t help but feel cynical about the prospects of these institutions cooperating, and I’m even more skeptical about them addressing it.

In late 2019, at the conclusion of my undergraduate degree, after having taken an intermission year for health reasons due to years of mobbing and having become a whistleblower, I was given the chance to fill out an anonymous feedback survey of my course. I gave the good (and there was some, though it was few and far between), the bad, and the ugly, and there was plenty of bad and even more of the viciously ugly.

If that feedback form should ever surface and be read in its entirety (which I doubt will ever happen, as I’m sure my former university would have somehow “misplaced” it or it would have conveniently “disappeared” from the system), the reader will see in the conclusion that I stated my belief that if the problems within the organizational culture were not actively resolved and tackled, the suicide of a student would be inevitable.

After years at that institution, I’d seen that the incompetence and toxicity were deeply embedded and normalized, with perpetrators shielded and the worst of the staff swimming through it like fish in water (“Fish don’t know they’re in water,” as the late David Foster Wallace once said), while the more “humane” among them mumbled platitudes and turned a blind eye because it was more convenient for their careers. It was obvious that somebody, likely a student, would end up being targeted and eventually end up taking their life, though I honestly would never have expected it to happen so soon.

Two months later, I received a message on my phone from an old friend in Peru, asking, “Isn’t this the place you studied at?” along with a link to an article in a newspaper from that country. The piece covered the suicide of a PhD student from the same institution due to mobbing. Later, I found out that the story had been covered in several tabloid news outlets both within the UK and across the world.

Though I already know the answers, I’d still like to know from the institution itself, why was this allowed to happen, why are they denying it, why are the perpetrators being protected (even though it’s an open secret as to who these individuals are), and why was it ever allowed to get to the point that it ended up taking somebody’s life, and could have potentially taken several more, including my own? · 29 April 2024 at 07:51

    Sorry to hear of your sad experience — which is all too common in UK Universities.

    You are right that the UK Universities are adept at avoiding their responsibilities under Freedom of Information.

    However, the 21 Group has a strategy to execute if Universities stonewall.

    For what it is worth, I think you are right — the most toxic Universities will likely refuse to answer.

      Anonymous · 1 May 2024 at 18:30

      It wouldn’t surprise me if the Oxbridge universities, which I imagine are the worst offenders, refused to disclose any information and rejected the Freedom of Information Act. Presumably, these institutions believe that they are too prestigious and hallowed to be questioned and are, therefore, above reproach.

      It’s a bit medieval and feudal, isn’t it? And if that’s their line of reasoning despite the fact that we are living in the 21st century and a democracy, then why don’t they go the full nine yards? Why not install turnspits replete with dogs in their cafeterias, replace carpets with straw, and have their dignity at work in either Latin or Old English?

      For whistleblowers, why not bring back cost-effective Scold’s bridles, stocks, pillories, and burning at the stake instead of NDA and lawsuits?

      Bear baiting might be a bit too much, ethically speaking, given their conservation departments, though bears might easily be replaced with human whistleblowers who could be baited in their place.

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