The Guardian’s Dishonest Use of the Word Epidemic

The Guardian has conducted an investigation into sexual harassment on UK university campuses.  The word they have chosen to describe their findings is ‘epidemic’. In fact the title of the article is “Sexual harassment ‘at epidemic levels’ in UK universities”. Making you think it must be pretty high. Well before we go on let us use Google to define ‘epidemic’.



noun: epidemic; plural noun: epidemics

1. a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.”a flu epidemic”

2. a sudden, widespread occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon.”an epidemic of violent crime”

Sudden and widespread occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon. Well sexual harassment is most certainly an undesirable phenomenon, but is it epidemic? Medically speaking, for a disease to be classed as epidemic it must reach infections in excess of 15 per 100’000 for 2 consecutive weeks. The weeks is important here.

A Guardian investigation through the use of Freedom of Information requests sent to 120 universities (there are 166 in total) revealed “at least 169 such allegations against academic and non-academic staff from 2011-12 to 2016-17”. Firstly, this is harassment by staff against students and it covers a 6 year period. Secondly, why use the phrase “at least”? Are The Guardian hiding the true figures for some reason or is it the use of weasel words for the narrative of it being epidemic? Who knows. The Guardian investigation also found a further 127 allegations from staff being harassed by other staff. So, in total we have 296 cases of harassment at 120 universities over a 6 year period.

A senior partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius says this is just the tip of the iceberg and that it has reached epidemic levels. They don’t provide any further figures to support the claim it is epidemic.

They do, however, provide specific figures for certain universities, such as Oxford. They had 11 by its central administration and 10 by college administration, now there could be duplication, as The Guardian states, but lets say there isn’t and there have been 21 complaints of sexual harassment by students against staff. The enrolment statistics for the 2015-16 cohort at the University of Oxford show they have 24’860 students currently enrolled. That is 0.085% of the cohort being victims of sexual harassment. That is not an epidemic. It is horrible and the culprits should be brought to justice and the victims compensated anyway they can be, but it isn’t an epidemic.

Let us take the law firms word and accept that this is an iceberg issue that the policies of the university prevent harassment cases from being investigated properly, as they claim in article. Well 90% of an iceberg is underwater. Thus that 0.085% becomes 0.85%. Less than 1%. And remember this is over a 6 year period. Definitely not epidemic.

Stats for staff at Oxford are as follows, 17 recorded staff-on-staff sexual harassment complaints at central administration and 3 at colleges. They employ, as per July 2015, 13’090 members of staff. That is 0.152% of the staff suffering sexual harassment from other staff. Again, not an epidemic. It would be if this occurring every 2 weeks, but it isn’t. It is over a 6 year period, or 312 weeks.

Let us look at the total number of students of the 120 universities and what percentage have suffered sexual harassment. The UK has a total of 166 higher education providers, with 2.28 million students enrolled. Not all of these are universities, but presuming the 120 The Guardian requested information from are the largest 120 higher education providers then they are all universities. The total student enrolment at the largest 120 universities in the UK is 2’110’950. Now this is not an accurate figure to the universities the Guardian requested information from. Mainly because the Open University England is the largest in the country at 101’490 and is not included in the Guardian’s report. Let us round down to a nice, even, 2’000’000 students. 169 students is 0.00845% of 2’000’000. If all of this happened in one year it would not be epidemic but this over 6 years. Even if this is the tip of the iceberg and 90% are unreported that would only make 0.0845% or 1690 students.

Even if all of the complaints filed, 296, were within the student population of these universities that would make 0.0148% suffering sexual harassment. The fact there are even 296 people within these universities who have suffered sexual harassment is awful but it is no where near an epidemic.

Just to be clear, sexual harassment should never happen and when it does justice should be swift. But claims of ‘epidemic levels’ when it is quite clearly not even close to being so only damages reputations. In this case The Guardians. This is not honest journalism this is an attempt to force the figures to fit the narrative they want to push and it simply does not fit.




The Study

Oxford Staff Total

UK Student Total and breakdown by university



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