British universities have no effective way to stop staff from pressuring students into sexual relationships and many alleged victims of sexual harassment are talked out of taking their complaints further, it has been reported.

Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to 120 universities found that 169 allegations of harassment, misconduct and gender violence by university staff were made between 2011 and 2017, the Guardian reported. It added that 127 allegations were made by staff about other colleagues.

Ann Olivarius, senior partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius, which represents those who suffer sexual harassment, described the numbers as "shocking".

She said: "Sexual harassment of students by staff members has reached epidemic levels in British universities.

"Young women are often terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint about a staff member. So often when they do the university's chief concern is to downplay any wrongdoing and protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet."

The FOI revealed that Oxford University recorded the most allegations against staff by students, with 11 from its central administration and 10 by colleges. Nottingham University had 10, Edinburgh nine, University of the Arts London (UAL) and Essex seven each and Cambridge at least six.

One case cited by the paper included a student who was sexually assaulted by an academic but had been offered a settlement on the proviso that she drop out of the programme and that no investigation on the staff member would take place.

Olivarius said the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act needed to be the basis for a nationwide system to tackle sexual harassment by staff and that there had to be a ban on any sexual contact between staff and all undergraduates, as well as between staff and graduates in the same field.

"The penalty for violating the no-contact rule should be swift termination with a public statement and a mandated report to a central UK registry," she said.

A University of Oxford spokesman said its campaign against sexual assault and harassment meant more students were coming forward "reflecting the progress made". The University of Cambridge said it had designed a complaints procedure with student choice at its centre.

UAL and the University of Essex said they did not tolerate sexual harassment while Nottingham University said its policies on the issue had led to no allegations being made in the past three years.