It’s time for universities to address sexual exploitation

Recent surveys conducted by Girls First Finance among young women between March and September reveal the shocking rates of sexual exploitation young women face in pursuing higher education degrees. Seventy percent of respondents across the Middle East and Africa had been sexually pressured and more than 80% in Sub-Saharan Africa – nearly half within the last 12 months.

Up to 50% report being pressured into sexual acts for education expenses funded by male ‘sponsors’ and 47% say they begin relationships with abusive men solely to cover education expenses. Others succumb to ‘sex for grades’, coerced by professors exploiting their authority. All the while, educational administrators rarely speak up about these abuses, hiding in plain sight on and off campus.

This pervasive reality belies the aspiration of educational institutions as enlightened environments shaping future leaders. Even worse, they are often complicit in perpetuating exploitation.

Many rely heavily on exploitative fees to stay solvent and resist addressing systemic issues that enable the abuse of female students, justifying the harm to some as a necessary evil to educate many more young people. Indeed, the survey results suggest that the greatest form of private financing to these institutions is likely predatory men.

Time for action

It’s time that higher education institutions admitted their role in this crisis. Beyond accepting funding from predatory sources, most lack adequate reporting and accountability measures to safeguard students.

Survivors rightfully fear retaliation, including losing the financial support they desperately need to complete their studies. And institutions tend to prioritise reputation over student welfare. They treat these forms of sexual exploitation as consensual life choices made by young women with individual failings rather than indictments of toxic cultures they have helped to cultivate.

To truly safeguard female students, higher education institutions must implement confidential reporting channels, whistleblower protections, trauma-informed investigations and proportional consequences. They should screen for a history of harassment in hiring. Training should address implicit biases and power dynamics. Third-party audits can assess unsafe environments.

Many predators are student leaders with access to discretionary budgets. Educational institutions are woefully passive if they cannot at least protect their young female students from their peers. But, most crucially, we must listen to the survivors who indicated in the survey that they need money more than any other intervention.

Institutions should collaborate with the private sector to provide alternative, affordable financing options so girls can pursue degrees free from dependency on exploitative sponsors and grades-for-sex bargains.

This demands innovative partnerships with financial entities. Income-share agreements allowing repayment as a percentage of future earnings are one emerging model among several that should be explored rigorously.

The role of government

Government policy-makers also bear responsibility. Their under-investment in higher education forces reliance on private fees to cover gaps. This drives girls’ vulnerability to exploitation if they lack family resources.

Stakeholders who insist on advocating for free higher education prioritise policies that are just but unrealistic for budget-strapped developing nations. Governments must find creative compromises.

Cost-sharing models which spread costs across stakeholders – governments, financial partners and institutions – can expand access. Governments can divert funds from wasteful projects towards education. Despite higher returns, tertiary education budgets in most countries badly trail secondary school spending.

Small policy tweaks, like covering the cost of exam fees and school uniforms in schools, make a real difference in reducing dropouts. These obligatory costs create a petri dish of exploitation for many girls who have to find the money to obtain the final transcripts they need to advance towards further education or obtain a job.

Legislation should incentivise private-sector financing through student loans, with potential abuses of the system being vigorously regulated. Interest rate caps often backfire, enabling predatory lending over traditional banks. Meanwhile, restrictive collateral requirements by conventional banks exclude vulnerable students.

Governments could stretch their limited cash further with guarantees that absorb default risks to attract commercial lenders once they accept they don’t have enough money to fund higher education for all the young people who seek it.

Multilateral agencies can provide guarantees to engage private capital. The goal should be affordable education financing at sustainable interest rates through public-private collaboration.

The need for collective action

No single stakeholder will succeed in tackling this sexual exploitation alone. Higher education institutions remain recalcitrant to self-imposed reforms and ignorant of the harm their complicity causes. Government resources are inadequate to transform policy. And the private sector maximises profits over social returns without incentives.

In short, we’re all guilty of turning a blind eye while our young people are exploited, and we’re all relevant to fixing this crisis.

This dilemma demands unprecedented cooperation. Each sector must apply its strengths while conceding its weaknesses. Academic institutions must implement cultural change which enables accountability.

Governments should catalyse private financing through smart policies, regulation and risk-sharing. Commercial banks must address biased market failures which deny young people access to student loans. Telecoms need to be enabled to get a smartphone in the hands of every young woman, recognising it is as lifesaving as a mosquito net.

Extensive exploitation is the unacceptable status quo at far too many academic institutions today. This corruption of educational ideals can no longer be ignored. It is time to stop quietly shuffling predatory professors into new posts, to cease putting the onus on victims who are often re-traumatised by public reporting protocols that lead few institutions to act against predatory faculty.

Most importantly, educational institutions should reform policies that perpetuate dependence on exploitative fees. Far more sustainable would be to enable commercial banks to lend to students, ensuring even stronger financial sustainability for the educational institutions.

These steps will empower girls to pursue knowledge freely and safely, bringing the trillions of dollars back to society which the World Bank estimates are currently lost due to these exploitative traumas worldwide.

Our young women deserve no less if we believe in the transformative power of education to build a more just society. The time has come for higher education institutions, governments and private sector leaders to acknowledge and address their part in enabling sexual exploitation. With collective action, we can end this scourge of ‘sex for fees and grades’.

Andrea Pizziconi, CFA, is an equal parts artist, impact investor and social entrepreneur. She is the founder of Africa Integras and Girls First Finance, which conducted the survey for this report. You can follow her on all platforms at @dreapizziconi or @girlsfirstfin.