Gender-Based Violence: A Call to Action for FE and HE

A lighted match against a dark background

Content note: this blog post refers to gender-based violence and related issues throughout. The contact details of some organisations that support people who have experience of gender-based violence are listed at the foot of this post.

While standing for NEC on a platform of anti-gender based violence (GBV) it was always my intention to write a blog post outlining some ideas for action. Committing words to the page, though, has proved challenging. As a survivor, it takes a lot to sit in the headspace required for reflection, for planning, and for responding to trauma. It’s an emotive topic. It feels, at times, like an impossible problem to solve. And even when organisations do come up with solutions, there are often unintended consequences that cause harm to vulnerable people in new ways.

Nevertheless, the ongoing work has to be done (noting, of course, that there are many people now and historically, in and beyond UCU, whose advocacy and activism has already brought about change. You’ll find some of them cited below).

For, to my mind, our oft repeated UCU phrase to students, ‘our teaching conditions are your learning conditions,’ stops short. Teaching conditions are learning conditions are all of our living conditions.

According to UCU’s ‘Eradicating Sexual Violence’ report, 39% of members have lived with an experience of GBV as a survivor, witness, or confidante in the five years to 2021.[1] Meanwhile 62% of students and recent graduates of UK universities (rising to 70% of women and 73% of disabled people surveyed) have lived with experiences of campus sexual violence.[2] GBV disproportionately affects those who are already marginalised on our campuses, by way of factors including casualisation, race, sexuality, disability, class, economic and immigration statuses, and language. 

The experiences and consequences of GBV in higher education do not get left at the office or lecture-theatre door. Abusers’ actions permeate private relationships and ruin survivors’ leisure time. Abusers disrupt communities including friendship groups and once collegial departments. They use a tactic called DARVO (deny the allegation, attack the complainant, and reverse the victim-offender narrative) to undermine the credibility of complainants, ensure that their mental health and reputation are centred in reporting processes, and file retaliatory counter-complaints.[3] Systems are stacked against survivors and make them precarious; this is why we say ‘believe them.’

Survivors, meanwhile, ‘pay a high price’ for telling their story.[4] GBV often demands that survivors pour hours of their time into counselling sessions and that they find coping strategies to continue working. Living with GBV can feel like having an extra full-time job that you’re expected to be on call for 24hours a day. There are no holidays; there is no pay.

These are unacceptable living conditions. There can be no place for gender-based violence in our workplaces or our union. So, what are we going to do about it?

Institutional Traps

Over the past few years a number of high-profile GBV cases have prompted a range of responses from university senior management teams thanks to survivors speaking out in the press and on social media platforms. Some institutional responses are better than others, and I have heard people speak about good practice – and, importantly, good reporting outcomes – anecdotally. However, I remain disappointed and frustrated by the sector’s overall failure to address the problem.

Take, for example, the so-called ‘Ross Report’ published by the University of Glasgow (albeit quietly, with no press release, executive summary, or follow-up commentary from management) in December 2022.[5] The independent inquiry was set up in response to numerous allegations of institutional failures to believe and support survivors. The tipping point was a series of Al Jazeera podcasts (‘Degrees of Abuse’) that examined two cases in which the university had taken the side of perpetrators and left student, staff, and civilian survivors without any recourse to justice.[6] My own case was investigated in episodes 5 and 6; I was a witness for a survivor who speaks in episodes 3 and 4.

The fact that the Ross Report was conducted at all suggests that the University of Glasgow is taking GBV seriously. The fact that senior management are willing to implement the report’s recommendations makes it seem as though the problem is going to go away.

However, for those of us experienced in reading between the lines on GBV, the Ross Report is a whitewash. It’s a cover up that does not centre survivors. It is not progressive in its recommendations. It is not intersectional in its approach. Indeed, its methodology is bad (definitions of GBV are at best misquoted and at worst misunderstood) and it is structurally unsound.[7] Crucially, it does not hold anyone accountable. It does not pave the way for better living conditions for survivors or offer viable strategies for GBV prevention.

While we should welcome interventions from institutions that are survivor-centred in their approach and practice, we should be cautious and critical of attempts to rehabilitate university branding. Survivors are not pawns in damage-limitation exercises: we can and should demand better.

Solidarity Movements

Solidarity movements do not offer a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of GBV. In fact, research suggests that GBV reporting and complaint outcomes in leftist organisations such as the SWP and RMT are ‘obstacles to movement building.’[8] Academics, professional services staff, and PhD students who commit GBV may also be, and often are, UCU members. Currently, UCU’s own system for reporting GBV perpetrated by another member – rule 13, which is under internal review – is not survivor-centred, and may cause additional harm to both complainants and those who are subject to complaints.

But that doesn’t mean that community groups, trade unions, and non-carceral organising spaces aren’t our best bet for addressing GBV. Unions, for instance, offer us potential for practising transformative justice – that is, a locally agreed and implemented framework for responding to violence without creating more violence. Mia Mingus describes how, emerging from Black, Indigenous, immigrant and low-income communities, transformative justice encourages accountability without intervention from state (institutional, police, criminal justice system) authority.[9] It’s also worth noting that while there’s scope to build substantially on UCU’s 2021 ‘Eradicating Sexual Violence’ recommendations, the union’s desire for accountability and its reviews of internal procedures demonstrate a clear commitment to the work.[10]

Furthermore, at a teach out in Glasgow last week (‘Putting Survivor Centred Practice Into Action’), attended by members of UCU, Unison, and PCS, and by people working in and outside of universities, there was a will for more joined-up resourcing and action. From glossaries of useful terminology, to training about responding to GBV disclosures, attendees wanted to act in coalition to learn and share ideas. Solidarity movements are not without their flaws, but unlike the white, patriarchal and capitalist structures of the neoliberal university, they are created and maintained by us. We have the power to affect change in our own spaces, to move things on, and we must.

Taking Action

None of my suggested actions offers a perfect solution. They may reinforce what others are already doing (e.g., on NEC committees or through motions submitted to Congress). Some are more practical than others, too. But we have to think big. We need short, medium and longer-term strategies that ensure we, not our employers, change the conversation from one of reporting and after-care to one in which GBV is not a commonplace condition of participating in tertiary education.

Short term

  • Conduct surveys, campaigns and action in solidarity with our sister campus unions will ensure that all FE and HE staff are accounted for in our discussions about GBV. 
  • Establish GBV working groups in all branches. Working group members would have access to UCU training and toolkits, and form networks across branches to share resources, set benchmarks for best practice, and lobby their institutions for change at local level.  
  • Use social media to target university hashtags and open days with relevant GBV stats. By working together across institutions (and with great care for communicating sensitive issues to potential students), members can threaten reputational damage without fear of breaking their own employers’ social media policies.
  • Peer-review the Ross Report. This is an ongoing project that aims to analyse and summarise the report’s problems. This is a group endeavour: if you’re a UCU member and you can contribute, please contact for access. Resisting bad practice at one institution enables others to resist it and improves conditions for all of us. 
  • Liaise with organisations such as The 1752 Group and The Emily Test to further discussions about best practice and collaborate on research where appropriate.
  • Continue existing efforts to end the cultures of casualisation, racism, queerphobia and transphobia, classism, ableism and misogyny that are pervasive in tertiary education.

Medium term

  • Determine whether (clear, precise) demands on employers related to GBV prevention and reporting can be included in future industrial action at UK level.
  • Finance more GBV legal cases (e.g., on health and safety grounds, supporting survivors accused of defamation, in discrimination tribunals) to hit employers where it hurts – their bottom line. This in keeping with UCU’s own GBV recommendations.
  • Educate all members via UCU training and online resources on GBV and related issues.
  • Follow up on case worker training and use of UCU toolkits to ensure that people’s implementation of training meets expected standards.
  • Enable survivor members to access case workers and UCU support when perpetrators are members at other branches.

Long term

  • Implement UCU and branch-specific transformative justice frameworks alongside benchmarks for reflecting on improvements and ongoing challenges. Centring survivors, frameworks could also include support for those accused of GBV to help them take responsibility for their actions and be accountable to those they have harmed.[11]
  • Lobby for an end to hierarchical grading and pay systems that perpetuate inequalities that underpin intersectional oppressions and enable a culture of abuse.
  • Shift the focus of discussions about GBV from reporting to prevention. It’s likely that this can only happen once we have achieved enough wins that we’re no longer in reactive or crisis mode. It can, and will, happen.

If you’d like to get in touch to discuss how to continue the conversation and take meaningful action, please write to With thanks to everyone who hosted and attended the Glasgow teach out for their time, energy, and comments, and to all those who are doing the work across the sector. 

Support services

Rape Crisis
08088 01 03 02

Rape Crisis offers confidential support to survivors of GBV. They have a live chat helpline at

0808 2000 247

Refuge offers support to people experiencing domestic violence. In addition to women and children, they offer specific help to men who experience domestic violence in relationships with people of any gender. That phone number (run by the Men’s Advice Line) is 0808 801 0327, and there are further resources at

Women’s Aid

Women’s Aid offers confidential advice, support and emergency accommodation for women and children who experience domestic violence. They have live chat and email contacts that you can access at the following link


Galop (Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Anti-Violence and Policing Group) has a national helpline for LGBT+ survivors of abuse and violence, including gender-based violence. Contact details for the helpline are available at:

Survivors UK

Survivors UK is a dedicated organisation providing support for male and non-binary survivors of gender-based violence. 1-to-1 chat sessions with trained support workers, in confidence, are available, with details at:

[1] UCU, ‘Eradicating Sexual Violence in Tertiary Education: A Report from UCU’s Sexual Violence Task Group,’ p.3.

[2] The Student Room and Revolt Sexual Assault, ‘Students’ Experience of Sexual Violence,’ 2018, pp.1-2.

[3] Jessica J. Freyd. ‘What is DARVO?,’ University of Oregon, 2023.

[4] Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 5.

[5] Morag Ross, KC, ‘The University of Glasgow’s Approaches to Gender-Based Violence: Independent Investigation and Review Report,’ University of Glasgow, 2022.

[6] Al Jazeera, ‘Degrees of Abuse.’ Podcast, episodes 1-6, 2021.

[7] UCU Commons, ‘UCU Members’ Review of the University of Glasgow 2022 Ross Report,’ 2023,

[8] Julia Downes, ‘“It’s Not the Abuse That Kills You, It’s the Silence”: The Silencing of Sexual Violence Activism in Social Justice Movements in the UK Left,’ Justice, Power & Resistance 1, no. 2 (2017): 36.

[9] Mia Mingus, ‘Transformative Justice: A Brief Description,’ Transforming Harm, January 11, 2019, On transformative justice, see also excerpts from Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Generation 5, ‘What are Community Accountability & Transformative Justice?’ Transformative Justice Practitioners Network, 2023,

[10] UCU, ‘Eradicating Sexual Violence,’ p.71.

[11] It’s worth noting that I am not advocating this as a solution in all cases; in my own experience, serial abusers would not engage in this process honestly. However, in some cases, it may prevent further harm being caused to the survivor and others. We need a range of approaches to the problem.

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