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Accusations Of Bullying by Academics in the UK’s Top Universities

By Hallum Cowell

A recent freedom of information request, made by journalists from the Guardian, has found accusations of university staff members in the UK, including senior academics, bullying students as well as fellow staff. This has occurred at the UK’s top universities, with numbers of accused academics reaching 300 in the past five years.

Over 100 universities responded to the freedom of information request, with some disclosing accusations against academics, and others being more liberal with their disclosure and including non-academic staff in their results also. It was found that Oxford University had the highest number of complaints against academic and non-academic staff combined at 73. Dozens of current and former academics spoke of aggressive behaviour, career sabotage and disinterested HR managers placing public image above staff and student well being.

More than 200 academics contacted the Guardian after the article was released. There are also reports of cover-ups in universities. Professor Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge, stated: “I know of 2 instances where it is hard to think a cover-up is not going on”.

Fourteen universities said they used non-disclosure agreements to resolve bullying cases with at least 27 staff signing onto these agreements. A former researcher explains to the Guardian that many cases of bullying can have dire effects. Many students break down or simply vanish. Extreme cases can catalyse PTSD or suicide.

A social science lecturer commented that she was pushed to resign after making a formal bullying complaint. Claims of abuse have also been levelled against academic institutions outside of universities such as; Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge and the Institute of Cancer Research in London.

The president of the Royal Society, Professor Venki Ramakrishnan said bullying had become ingrained and that an overhaul of workplace practises was required.

Most concerning, however, are the claims by many experts, students and academics that the number of bullies is actually significantly higher than reported.

Cardiff University’s anti-bullying policies can be found online in a document titled “Dignity at work and stud policy 2013”. One statement included is: “The failure of University staff and students to behave with dignity, courtesy and respect towards others… In particular, harassment, bullying and victimisation… are unacceptable forms of behaviour which will not be tolerated”. The document adds: “Disciplinary action may be taken against the staff members”

A note of advice from academics for students, especially if they feel their university is doing nothing, is to keep a diary of events so that, if the university is not prepared to take disciplinary action, they can ably take their case to higher powers.

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