“It all started when the uni closed down in March and I went back to live with my family,” says Prisha*, 20, a second-year student at Middlesex University. “My mum and my sister found out about my boyfriend, and they were furious. My sister was swearing and throwing knives. My mum said she was going to stab my throat. They said they were going to destroy him.”
Prisha contacted the mental health team at her university and was put in a designated safe house in halls. “They gave me accommodation and food, and they didn’t charge me,” she says.
Dana*, 22, spent the summer there too. “My ex-boyfriend kept calling me and coming to my place and it wasn’t safe to be there. I emailed my uni, and they said I could come the next morning and stay for free. There was someone there to help me unpack. It was everything I could’ve wanted at the time.”
In all, Middlesex gave rooms to six students who were experiencing domestic abuse at home. Through links with Barnet council, accommodation was also offered to women in the community escaping domestic violence during the pandemic.
Something similar was happening St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, which operated as a refuge during the pandemic. From April to September, 23 women and children fleeing domestic abuse were given accommodation. With locked iron gates, 24-hour security and onsite housekeepers, the college was able to offer flats with an enclosed garden for children to play in. They were single women and mothers with children of varying ages; the biggest was a family of four. One 14-year-old, who spent the summer there with her mum, said it made her want to go to university and apply to Cambridge herself.
Many people who have an abusive person in their life try to find safe alternatives, such as staying with a friend or relative. The universities stepped in to fill an important gap because, during lockdown, traditional escape routes like these disappeared. There was a 40.6% reduction in the number of refuge vacancies nationwide, yet more than 60% of those women living with their abuser said the abuse had worsened. The Counting Dead Women project estimates that 26 women were killed by their partner or ex-partner during the seven-week lockdown period.
With students leaving campuses following Covid outbreaks and the National Union of Students urging universities to offer refunds on halls of residences, could this be a good use of leftover space? “Absolutely,” says Fiona Dwyer, chief executive of Solace. “It’s fantastic that they are using it in this way. The reality of the situation is that on any given day two-thirds of women have to be turned away [from refuges] because of a lack of supply. Demand is immense, and they need to be given that one chance to flee.”
But universities aren’t equipped to do this alone: they need to work in partnership with local organisations. In Cambridge, there was a longstanding connection with the local Women’s Aid organisation. “When lockdown started and students cleared out, and demand for refuge spaces soared, working together seemed like a logical step,” says Helen Hayward, operations director at St Catharine’s.
Angie Stewart, chief executive of Cambridge Women’s Aid, says they had to react quickly. “It was a new thing for all of us and there was a danger that if we had tried to agree a watertight legal agreement it would have taken forever. So the college said forget it, just come: it’s here, it’s free and it’s beautiful.” Middlesex, too, worked collaboratively with local agencies, including the police.
Norah Al-Ani, from Cambridge Rape Crisis, suggests that the support could be a good way to use empty rooms vacated by students fleeing Covid-19 outbreaks. “If the space is sitting empty and can be used it’s a brilliant idea,” she says. “But it would only really work if the space was fully vacated. You couldn’t have students living alongside the women and children.”
She adds that converting university halls into emergency accommodation isn’t a long-term solution and locations are not always discreet. “It wouldn’t be possible in a block of flats directly on the street.”
In addition, unlike most refuges, which are mindful of smaller children and have gardens, toys and cots available, university halls are not ideal when families are involved. “At universities, it is more like putting people in a secure hotel. It isn’t child-friendly,” says Stewart. “But children often do best when their mum’s OK.”
Access to high-speed wifi was a bonus. “Having secure internet was amazing, as people were doing emergency applications to court and being able to keep in touch via video call was vital,” says Stewart.
Other universities also offered practical support. Anglia Ruskin regularly provides venues free of charge for conferences on sexual and domestic abuse, while the City Law School students give free legal advice to survivors. Others, such as Cardiff, have enhanced their intranet support pages, covering a range of topics such as recognising signs of abuse and helping others. At London South Bank, support services offer online chats to make it safer to communicate.
There’s a reason universities are stepping up their efforts. According to a new report by Universities UK, the majority of high-risk victims are university age and those under 25 are most likely to suffer interpersonal violence. They should be doing more, it says, to reach out to students, staff and their local communities to raise awareness and identify victims.
Dwyer agrees and says there is too little focus on recognising and addressing sexual violence in the younger age group. “They don’t often see it as domestic abuse as they’re often not living with the perpetrator. Instead, they may be on campus or in a dorm room down the hall.”
Although universities have become much better at addressing sexual violence among students some institutions are doing better than others. Some have only put in place measures after serious incidents have already happened on campus.
While some are playing catch-up, others are already looking ahead. “If there was another lockdown scenario we’d just pick up the phone and say, ‘What do you need?’ It has certainly made us think about the other periods of time when accommodation is not being used, such as the summer vacation,” says Hayward. “We want to communicate that universities or other organisations with empty housing stock can use it in this way.”
*names have been changed