The University of Birmingham Guild President, Acacia Matthews is planning a university-wide compulsory consent course for students and staff.
Acacia was elected as president for the 2022 to 2023 academic year last March. Her manifesto included an array of popular policies such as ensuring the University divests from all fossil fuels and declares a climate emergency, creating a more transparent, democratic student experience, and delivering a compulsory consent course to build a safer campus environment.
What is Reclaim Campus?
Following the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa last year, Acacia led a candlelight vigil and later founded Reclaim Campus, a society dedicated to improving safety in student areas.
Hundreds of students attended the vigil for Sarah Everard on March 17, 2021, and many bravely stood up to share their stories of assault and harassment. From providing transport home from campus at night via the Selly Express to organising self-defence lessons, Reclaim urgently responded to the clear need for safety implementations on campus. But is a compulsory consent course the best next step forwards?
Why is a consent course important?
Although we all watched the cup of tea video back in secondary school, a compulsory consent course would arguably form a crucial refresher and a reminder to students and staff of the importance of consent.
In a world where 97% of young women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, it is clear that people need to learn, not only to ask for clear consent in sexual relations, but also about the severity of street harassment and assault in nightclubs, and how to respond when this happens to a friend.
Some of my male friends definitely do not understand how important it is to offer to walk women or non-binary people home after a night out or to remain vigilant in nightclubs and I feel a consent course could change this. While many campaigns for safety on the streets put the onus on the victim to carry an alarm, stay at home, or dress a certain way, a consent course would focus on educating potential offenders rather than lecturing victims.
Where have Consent Matters courses been seen before?
However, it must be noted that, when people assault or harass others, it is rarely because they don’t know the importance of consent, more that they disregard this and choose to assert power through assault anyway. A compulsory consent course would likely be preaching to the converted, as those disinterested would probably flick through it without really paying attention and could even mock or make jokes out of the course.
At a recent conference with the Student Watch Council, I spoke with students from across the UK about potential solutions to improve student safety. Those who had completed compulsory consent courses at uni reported that many students felt patronised by this and mocked the course.
Ultimately, a consent course would certainly not solve issues of harassment and assault. But it could definitely be a step in the right direction and spark a conversation about student safety if delivered productively and sensitively.