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Tuition fees making students vulnerable

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Website hoax takes advantage of students forced to turn to the sex industry.

A 39-year old man has been arrested on suspicion of incitement to prostitution, following undercover investigations by both Channel 4 News and the Independent newspaper.

Married father of two Mark Lancaster claimed to be an ‘assessor’ for Sponsor A Scholar, a web-based company which offered sponsorship of up to £15,000 a year to female students in return for ‘discreet adventures’ with wealthy businessmen.

In a film broadcast by Channel 4 News on 30 November, a reporter posing as a student was asked to dress up and pose for photographs and undergo a ‘practical assessment’ with Lancaster.

Similarly, a reporter from the Independent was told she would have to ‘demonstrate the level of intimacy’ that would be required by sponsors as a form of ‘quality control’.

The website, which has since been taken down, claimed to have arranged sponsorship for 1,400 women aged between 17 and 24, but appears to be an elaborate hoax created by Lancaster to target young women for sex.

One student told Channel 4 News she had been pressured into having sex with Lancaster after struggling to pay her tuition fees.

“He just kissed me before I really had time to think about it or ask any questions … and I just froze because I really didn’t know what to do. Then he started undressing me.

“I was in a different city, and he’d picked me up from outside the place and walked me in so in my mind I was, like, ‘I can’t leave right now because I don’t know where I am and if I do leave and he chases me, I don’t know what to do’. So I just froze and went along with what he was doing,” she said.

Following her ordeal she was sent an email from Sponsor A Scholar telling her she had been unsuccessful, but that she could reapply in a couple of months.

In the wake of the reports, Minister for Women Jo Swinson has insisted that the government is committed to tacking such sexual exploitation.

“We are committed to tackling the harm and exploitation that can be associated with prostitution. We want to see the police use the law, where appropriate, to tackle those who have taken advantage of those who are forced into prostitution,” she said.

Both Channel 4 and the Independent have passed the information from their investigations on to the police.

The case has highlighted a disturbing trend for students to turn to the sex industry to help fund their education.

The rising cost of university tuition fees in particular have been cited as one of the main reasons cash-strapped students are turning to sex work instead of bar work to avoid huge debts.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5, NUS national women’s officer Estelle Hart said that increased living costs, higher fees and cuts to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) are driving students to the streets to pay for their studies.

“Students are taking more dangerous measures,” she told an interviewer. “In an economic climate where there are very few jobs, people are taking more work in the informal economy, such as sex work.”

Earlier this month, the National Student reported that the number of students working in the sex industry had doubled in the past year.

A study carried out by professor Ron Roberts of Kingston University revealed that six per cent of students are turning to the sex industry for employment and every year between £600,000 and £3million is channelled into each UK institution by students working in the industry.

Professor Roberts said: “Sadly, students are a financially vulnerable and heavily indebted financial sector and have become targets for people with money.

“The economy of the sex industry is now heavily intertwined with higher education economy.”

The English Collective of Prostitutes said the number of calls made to its helpline from students has also doubled in the last 12 months.

“They [ministers] know the cuts they’re making are driving women into things like sex work. It’s a survival strategy so we would hold the government responsible for that.”

In Wales, a new project led by Swansea University is carrying out a three-year study into the scale of the problem.

The Student Sex Workers Project is a Big Lottery-funded initiative in partnership with the Terrence Higgins Trust, which will offer support to student sex workers in Wales and investigate their motivation.

The project is led by Dr Tracey Sagar from the university’s Centre for Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Speaking to the Huffington Post she claimed that the Sponsor A Scholar case was the “tip of a very large iceberg” and that the internet enabled such exploitation due to loopholes in the law.

She said: “The law has not caught up with the internet and nor has society. Technically the website falls between loopholes in the law. The internet falls between everything.”

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