Oxford’s Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service is quietly providing advice to students who have been accused of sexual misconduct. 

On its student advice website, the University states that the service is for students who have “experienced sexual harassment and violence in any form”. However, tucked away in the university’s policy documents, the Student Harassment Procedure notes that “sources of support and advice are also available to students who have been accused of misconduct”. 

The Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service is staffed full time by Pete Mandeville, the project lead, and he is supported by five specialist advisors who take on the work alongside their other roles within the university. The service also seconds an Independent Sexual Violence Advocate from the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre, Léa Maquin, whom students can be referred to via the service or independently. As stated online, the service provides advice and support to students affected by sexual misconduct. They also provide advice to colleges and can offer no-names consultations to college staff over the phone. 

The Support Service was launched in Michaelmas 2018 as a central resource for students who have experienced sexual harassment and violence, and to provide advice independent from colleges, which often have to balance their responsibilities to both reporting students and accused students.

Just as the colleges do, the University has a duty of care to all of its students, including those who have been accused of sexual misconduct. The legal guidance produced by Pinset Masons for universities responding to reports of sexual misconduct states:  

“…universities will have to take into account the interests and welfare of both students and endeavour to treat them fairly and equally when undertaking the risk assessment and ascertaining the potential effectiveness and impact of precautionary measures”

However, it goes on to add that “as far as possible, the support measures for each student should be provided separately”.

On the University’s staff advice website, they state that “the service also supports students who have had allegations made against them. They are held by a separate advisor to any reporting student to avoid conflict of interest and efforts are made to keep them separate within the service.”

As the head of the service and its only male-identifying employee, Pete Mandeville takes responsibility for the majority of these cases himself, but he does not exclusively take on casework of this nature. This role allocation is one of several informal measures to keep reporting students and accused students separate. However, this means that students who have been accused of sexual violence are typically receiving support and advice from the most senior member of the service. Inversely, it also means that the head of the service which claims to exist for survivors of sexual violence — and indeed, the only dedicated member of staff who is employed by the university fully time — is the individual with predominant responsibility for accused students. There is not a separate advisor for accused students.

Cherwell spoke to a student who accessed the service to receive support after they had been sexually assaulted. They said: “I feel shaken, very angry and completely misinformed — this clearly is not a safe space. I don’t understand how it’s been advertised as impartial, non-judgemental and explicitly advertised as a support service for those who have experienced sexual violence when it quite clearly is not. This has made me feel (even more) unsupported by the university … I feel I was kept in the dark.”

It Happens Here, Oxford Student Union’s campaign against sexual violence, stated: “IHH are of the opinion that the SAS should maintain a level of clarity in respect of such a sensitive topic — if they keep survivors unaware, they are not allowing them to prepare or to make an informed choice regarding whether they wish to continue to use the services. 

“We believe honesty and a separation of resources as to avoid conflating the two experiences is how the SAS should proceed.”

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the University issued the following statement: 

“As in all areas of University welfare provision, our duty of care is to all our students,  the University has never made any secret of the fact that the Sexual Harassment and Violence Support service is intended for anyone affected. This includes survivors and those accused. 

“The marketing of the Service is focussed on our primary user group, student survivors seeking help. The communications through posters and the website reflect this focus and need, but the Service offers broader provision than is advertised to students, including training and anonymous case advice to staff. 

“Cases are allocated based on a staff member’s skill and experience level and our primary goal is always to achieve the best outcome for students and give them the support they need while they are at their most vulnerable. 

“As part of this commitment the Service offers access to a full time Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) employed by Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre (OSARCC) and seconded to the Support Service. Their role is solely focussed on the support of survivors. It is not the case that accused students represent the majority of any single staff member’s case work. They in fact make up a tiny proportion of the overall caseload (4%) and only 7% of the Service Lead’s casework. Students who use the service are invited to specify whether they wish to speak to a male or female advisor.  As the only male identifying member of the team, the Service Lead typically sees more male students than others and there is no conflict of interest caused.” 

SpeakOut Oxford have been contacted for comment. 

If you have been affected by sexual harassment or violence, there are a number of resources available to you. As well the University’s support service, you can also contact: the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre, an independent charity in Oxford where you can also refer yourself to the university ISVA; your local GP; It Happens Here, the OUSU campaign against sexual violence; SpeakOut Oxford, an independent and student-run advocacy group; the university counselling service; and/or your college welfare team.

This article was updated on the 5th June to reflect an error in the University’s statement: the full time ISVA is seconded to the Support Service by OSARCC, not employed by the University.