Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Ruaraidh Gilmour
07 September 2023
Safety on campus: tackling sexual violence at Scotland's universities

Ellie Wilson's petition is asking for national safeguarding guidance on how higher education institutions should handle cases of sexual misconduct | Adobe Stock

Safety on campus: tackling sexual violence at Scotland's universities

Ellie Wilson is campaigning to transform Scottish university campuses, making them safer, primarily for women. The politics graduate, who was raped by Daniel McFarlane whilst they both studied at the University of Glasgow, waived her right to anonymity last year to highlight issues in the Scottish criminal justice system and safety concerns on university campuses.  

Through her consistent campaigning, mainly via social media channels like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, she has already successfully influenced the Scottish Government to commit to a pilot for free court transcripts for victims. This is after she had to pay £3,000 to access her court transcripts in order to raise a complaint against the defence advocate, who had aired her sexual history during the trial of McFarlane. 

Wilson reported the sexual abuse she suffered in 2020. McFarlane was subsequently suspended from studying medicine at the University of Glasgow while he awaited trial. However, during that period he was able to transfer to the University of Edinburgh to continue his studies.  

The deeply shocking revelation prompted Wilson to send freedom of information (FOI) requests to every Scottish university to ascertain if this was a common policy. She found that it was. She also discovered that universities did not share information on the outcomes of sex-related disciplinary hearings, leaving offenders able to make fresh starts at institutions that potentially knew nothing about their past actions.

But where did the lack of common policy arise? UCAS, the organisation that deals with university and college admissions in the UK, did collect data on criminal convictions, however following the introduction of GDPR, a dangerous vacuum was created. The company was advised by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to make changes to the collection of information relating to criminal convictions for the 2019 entry cycle. Data collection about criminal convictions was no longer asked for. 

Clare Marchant, UCAS chief executive, said: “These changes do not prevent universities and colleges from asking applicants to share any criminal convictions.” 

She added: “We have provided good practice to support universities and colleges in determining their own policy, taking into consideration the specific course, module composition, location and teaching practices.” 

And while applicants are required to declare any criminal convictions for some courses such as medicine, nursing, teaching, or social work, it leaves the onus of vital data collection for other courses on the universities. All Scottish universities ask that students declare any new charges or convictions while studying on their campuses, but this does not guarantee a student will do so.  

Research by Holyrood involving ten universities shows the lack of uniformity relating to the collection of data of applicants and returning students. For example, Glasgow Caledonian University asks applicants once they have firmly accepted an offer to study to declare any unspent criminal convictions, but it does not yet require the same from students who are returning on an annual basis at registration, although it plans to bring such a policy into place. The university’s criminal convictions policy requires all students to notify the university if they receive any relevant criminal convictions. 

Heriot-Watt University and the University of Strathclyde require all new and returning students to disclose current criminal charges or previous criminal convictions as part of their enrolment. While the University of Edinburgh does not require applicants to disclose any criminal convictions or ongoing investigations at the point of application unless their chosen degree is exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 or requires membership of the PVG scheme, it “encourages all other applicants, including matriculated students, to discuss pending charges or restrictions relating to a conviction” with it. Abertay University and the University of the Highlands and Islands operate similar policies.  

After discovering safety concerns in Scotland’s university policies, Wilson lodged a petition in the Scottish Parliament in July 2022. It aims to create a framework for national guidance to be directed to universities. It asks that universities offer online-only classes to individuals awaiting trial and that appropriate disciplinary action is taken if sexual misconduct is proven. 

Pointing to her own experience and the case of convicted rapist Isla Bryson, who was able to enrol on a beauty course while awaiting trial, Wilson told Holyrood: “We need to consider these are people’s lives that we are gambling with. There are sex offenders roaming our campuses where there are vulnerable people, and we still have not closed that loophole.” 

The petition is supported by Pam Gosal MSP, who has built backing for the petition within Holyrood, gaining signatures from five party leaders. She regularly contacts the higher education minister for updates on what work is being done to ensure better safeguarding is implemented in universities. But she is unhappy with the vague responses and the speed in which the Scottish Government has moved so far, “especially when people are at universities and colleges right now, so potentially every day is an unsafe day”.   

Gosal said she and Wilson are asking for three areas of change: national guidance for how applicants with a history or charges of sexual assault or other relevant convictions are considered; more data sharing between universities concerning students transferring between institutions during a degree; and the creation of a robust policy regarding student safety and wellbeing. 

Neither Wilson nor Gosal believe safety can be guaranteed on university campuses at present, and as Wilson points out, women are “more likely to become a victim of sexual violence at university than a member of the general population”. This is highlighted in figures from the Office of the National Statistics taken between March 2018 and March 2020. They show that women who are classed as full-time students in England and Wales, between the ages of 16 and 74, experienced sexual assault at a greater rate than any other occupational group.  

The conversation about sexual violence on Scottish university campuses has been ongoing for a while, but Wilson says the problem has become “exacerbated by the lack of safeguards in place”.

Wilson said: “In my situation, while my rapist hadn’t been convicted but had been charged, he was allowed on campus [at the University of Edinburgh]. I have yet to have any sort of clarity on what safeguarding measures were put in place while he was on campus. All that I can gather is that there were not safeguarding measures in place. 

“So, there is a lack of policy around how to deal with people who are potential risks. There has also been a range of cases that have shown that the internal disciplinary action, when it comes to sexual misconduct at universities, is also completely lacking.” 

Gosal says that “when every university is doing its own thing” there is “no uniform approach” to keeping students safe across Scotland. Of the universities Holyrood spoke to, all pointed to safeguarding measures they employ on campus, for example, Heriot-Watt University has an app which allows students to share their location when in danger. At the University of Aberdeen, they encourage the use of an online tool that enables students, staff, and visitors to report incidents at any time and get follow-up support. They also plan to submit for EmilyTest Charter, a Scottish Government-funded charity in Scotland working to improve gender-based violence (GBV) prevention, intervention and support in further and higher education. This is positive, yet Wilson’s case highlights that work needs to be done to better understand measures that can be implemented to limit potentially dangerous individuals from interacting with vulnerable students on Scottish campuses.  

In an attempt to get answers from the University of Edinburgh on her specific case, Wilson has been in contact to ascertain how they “would deal with someone who is suspected of being a sex offender on campus, and what safeguarding measures they put in place”. She posed the question in this way as she was told they could not comment on specific cases. She says her question has not been answered.   

When asked by Holyrood what advice and safeguards are in place at the university to protect and respond to violence or sexual violence, a spokesperson from the University of Edinburgh said: “We continue to invest significantly in raising awareness, delivering training for students and staff and ensuring there is effective professional support available for any student who needs it. Our dedicated Equally Safe Team provides specialist advice, support and guidance to those affected by forms of abuse. We also have a system in place that enables students to either tell the university about any abuse they have suffered anonymously or report it with contact details and seek wider support. 

“The university systematically reviews all of our policies and processes, and we will continue to listen to views on what changes can be made to refine these and help make sure that all students feel safe and protected. Universities Scotland are also working with the sector and the Scottish Government to review processes and explore what further action might be taken in the interests of student safety and wellbeing.” 

Universities Scotland is working to deliver a common baseline approach across all 19 Scottish universities, which it says will deliver on what Wilson is calling for.  

Responding to the Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, Universities Scotland said that “universities are deeply committed to the prevention of gender-based violence, hate crimes and other acts of violence within a university environment”. 

On universities’ ability to “assess risk” and “take action” where students have been convicted of sexual offences or are awaiting trial for serious sexual offences, “universities need to access student data on unspent relevant criminal convictions and relevant criminal charges”. It notes there has not been a sector-wide approach since UCAS stopped the requirement for declaration of criminal convictions or charges for applicants. It says universities are working towards a “nationwide approach”.  

Working within legal advice which “balances the key variables of natural justice, safeguarding and GDPR”, Universities Scotland intends to set a best practice, extending that to “data [collection] from new and returning students on an annual basis”, giving “institutions sufficient means to run an internal risk management process” that would allow them to “apply any mitigations deemed necessary following the risk assessment”, which could range from “modifications to the person’s mode of study, through to suspension or expulsion”. 

It added that universities believe in the “fundamental principle of a right to a fair trial and a right to rehabilitation” and education can play an “immensely important role” in rehabilitation.

Universities Scotland added: “It is important to note that it is for the justice system to make the wider determination of the risk an individual poses to society as a whole and make decisions to hold someone in custody, set bail conditions or conditions of licence on an individual that would limit a person’s rights and activity in proportion to the level of risk identified.” 

Noting that “at this point in the process the legal advice is provisional but looks favourable” on work to address the considerations in Wilson’s petition, it said: “We should be in a position, by October 2024, to share a full account of the detail of this approach with the certainty that universities have a robust legal basis for implementation.” 

Wilson says her most productive interactions have been with Universities Scotland, but “considering the importance of this issue” she thinks it is “ridiculous” that it has not been resolved quicker. She feels like she has had “warm words” from the Scottish Government, and she does “genuinely believe they are making some positive steps” on tackling sexual violence in higher education. 

“What I am asking for with the petition is not very much. All I am asking for is a policy document and I do not understand the reluctance in producing that.” 

While in the last ten years there has been a 96 per cent increase in the number of sexual crimes recorded in Scotland, many women still suffer in silence. To encourage more people who have experienced sexual violence to report it, Wilson believes there needs to be systems in place that don’t make the experience “more traumatic” and create a culture where the assumption is someone could be lying.  

“They need to feel safe, supported, believed, and they need to feel that adequate action is being taken.”

Wilson admits her studies suffered after the sexual violence she experienced but was still able to graduate with a first-class and a distinction in both her undergraduate and masters degrees.  

“I think that was because my school was very supportive when it came to extensions and being supportive of what I was going through. I know that can vary loads among universities, but also within universities. 

“It’s about educating staff as to how to respond to these situations and creating a culture of compassion when it comes to dealing with these sorts of cases.”

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top