Third of Cambridge University staff ‘have experienced bullying’

Nearly a third of staff at the University of Cambridge say they have experienced bullying and harassment in the workplace, according to an internal survey obtained by the Guardian that revealed what one union called “a culture of bullying” in parts of the institution.

Responses from 3,000 academic and non-academic staff – a quarter of Cambridge’s total workforce – found that nearly one in three had either been the victims of bullying and other forms of victimisation or had seen it directed against colleagues in the previous 18 months.

The survey found that the largest group to have suffered bullying and harassment were women and assistant staff – Cambridge’s term for non-academic support staff – while the largest group to exhibit bullying and harassment were academics.

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The results are revealed as the Office for Students, the higher education regulator for England, prepares to set out new requirements for how universities handle harassment and sexual misconduct affecting students and staff, including intervention by the regulator in cases of ineffective procedures.

The Cambridge survey was jointly conducted by the university and the three main campus unions – Unite, Unison, and the University and College Union – after the unions said they were concerned about persistent levels of toxic and intimidating behaviour, including shouting, degrading comments and targeting of individuals.

Will Smith, the secretary of Unite’s Cambridge branch, said he had pushed for the survey to be carried out because he had seen no signs of it being tackled by the university’s central administration.

“We all knew that bullying and harassment was a big issue and we’ve known for years, but it wasn’t until the survey was carried out that it started to be taken seriously,” Smith said.

Smith said many academic staff often did not receive adequate management training, while the university’s sprawling, hierarchical structure made it hard to identify and discipline the worst culprits.

“It’s very difficult to discipline academics and almost impossible for them to lose their jobs except in really dire cases. I’ve been here 30 years and can’t think of anyone being dismissed – some have left but not dismissed,” Smith said.

Twenty-one percent of staff said they had been subjected to bullying or harassment, while 23% reported having witnessed such behaviour towards other staff.

More than half of those who experienced bullying and harassment said they did not report the incidents, with many believing that nothing would be done, while others said it was because they feared the perpetrator would retaliate or their careers would be affected.

A majority of those that did report incidents were not satisfied with the outcome, with some saying their complaints “were ignored, dismissed or brushed aside”.

A spokesperson for Cambridge said a larger university-wide survey also found that 11.5% of staff reported being the victims of bullying or harassment.

“The university strives at all times to provide an inclusive and supportive working environment where staff are – and feel – trusted and valued. This includes being open about issues such as bullying and harassment, listening to staff concerns and responding appropriately,” a spokesperson said.

“Work in this area is at various stages but includes the introduction of improved support services for staff, such as new dignity at work contacts and professional mediators, the delivery of culture change and inclusive leadership training, and a review of the university’s investigations process.”

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The initial survey was carried out in July 2018 but was only released on the university’s internal network in 2019.

A summary of the results include comments by Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, who wrote: “To be a leading institution, we must accept that this type of behaviour has no place at Cambridge. The experiences of bullying and harassment shared by some of the staff participating in this joint survey show us, however, that we have work to do to make this a reality for all.”

Ivan Williams, Unison’s Cambridge branch chair, said: “The levels of staff who say they have witnessed or suffered bullying is deeply worrying. I would also be concerned that, due to a lack of training, many staff are not even aware that some of the treatment they have to deal with at work would be classed as bullying.

“We are happy that the vice-chancellor has committed to zero tolerance of bullying, but we look forward to the university putting forward real plans to tackle this. Increasing training for all levels of staff so they know what constitutes bullying and what is expected to resolve bullying would be a good step.”

The joint survey’s executive summary concluded: “Clearly, significant work and investment is needed to bring about lasting cultural change across the university.”

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