Raising standards in student safety and security

Last November, I became the patron of ProtectED – a membership organisation for United Kingdom universities that subscribe to the five principles upon which ProtectED is based:

  • • Students cannot reach their full potential when impeded by issues affecting their safety, security and well-being.

  • • Higher education institutions have a duty to develop and implement appropriate policies, processes and procedures that support student safety, security and well-being.

  • • Ensuring the safety, security and well-being of students requires a ‘joined-up’ approach across the student experience – partnership working is essential.

  • • All higher education staff and students are important in nurturing a positive, caring and inclusive learning environment for all students in the institution.

  • • Effectively tackling issues of student safety, security and well-being requires well-founded intelligence.

ProtectED supports member institutions to adopt these principles within their policies, structures, processes and culture as part of a multi-agency approach to student safety, security and well-being. When ready, member universities may apply for official accreditation against the ProtectED Code of Practice.

Time for change

ProtectED brings together a number of issues that I have long been passionate about. Much of my life has been spent in higher education, from being a history undergraduate in the sixties to serving as dean of the faculty of arts and humanities at Lancaster University until the late 1990s.

The UK student experience has changed a great deal during that time, and it continues to change. Since tuition fees were first introduced in the UK in 1998, they have risen to over £9,000 (US$12,500) per year and, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, UK students now leave university with an average debt of more than £50,000 (US$70,000).

Increased student debt is just one issue that has been linked to a surge in students seeking counselling.

Sexual violence is also an issue: 54% of female students in the UK say they have experienced sexual harassment, and reports suggest that some universities are failing to adequately support their students.

But this problem is not limited to the UK – universities in Australia, India and China have similarly been criticised for failing to properly address ‘epidemic’ levels of sexual harassment.

Some things appear to be changing for the better, however – albeit slowly. Behaviour that may have once been hushed up and tolerated is, in some institutions, being recorded and challenged.

In the UK, the University of Cambridge introduced an anonymous reporting tool and their 'Breaking the Silence' campaign in October 2017, which has significantly improved reporting and recording of harassment and sexual assault incidents. I applaud them for their enlightened approach to this difficult issue and we can only hope more universities follow their lead.

Delivering security

I have also been heavily involved in public safety, working with policing organisations as well as chairing the Security Industry Authority (SIA) for six years. As the government regulator of the UK private security industry, the mission of the SIA is to regulate and improve standards so that the public is, and feels, safer. ProtectED fills a useful gap here as, although the university sector is publicly funded, provision of security is not currently regulated.

Working closely with the SIA, ProtectED has developed the 'Core Institutional Safety and Security' component of the Code of Practice to help UK institutions implement good practice in their security services. This should improve the safety and security of students at ProtectED member universities, as well as driving cost efficiencies for these institutions and ensuring security staff are supported in their role.

Informing choices

The perceived safety of a university is a significant factor for prospective students, their parents and loved ones. This is particularly true for international students selecting their university, whose first visit to the UK may not be until they begin their studies.

Each year, university league tables are published on the rate of robberies, burglaries and violent or sexual crimes – crimes deemed most relevant to UK students. However, these statistics relate to resident populations, not to incidents specifically involving students.

Furthermore, these league tables do not provide any indication of the quality of the security and student support services provided by a university. This is a critical factor in helping students cope with the pressures and complexity of student life and arguably is a more valid indicator of campus safety.

Spreading good practice

Measures in place to support student safety and well-being vary considerably between institutions. Given that the young people populating universities belong to an ‘at risk’ demographic when it comes to both crime victimisation and mental ill health and that students may be living away from home for the first time, this can present problems for university security staff – often the ones left picking up the pieces on evenings and weekends.

A recent Guardian article by an anonymous security guard highlighted the problems faced by university security teams dealing with challenging situations – in some cases involving suicidal students – who are equipped with little more than good intentions and a first aid kit.

The article raises important concerns over lack of training – concerns shared by many on the frontline, such as catering, cleaning and accommodation staff who are well positioned to spot signs of distress, but are often untrained in how to respond and unsure who to contact within the university.

More enlightened universities are investing in developing the role of support staff to reflect their contribution to creating a safer, more inclusive university student experience.

Some institutions, such as the University of Bath, train their security staff to deal with reports of sexual harassment and assault, while all University of Chester porters are provided with mental health first aid training.

These measures acknowledge that the job of university security officers increasingly involves a pastoral role – they are often first on the scene, late at night when a student is in distress or when a crime has occurred. However, no legal requirement exists to compel universities to undertake such initiatives, putting students at risk and placing unnecessary strain on staff.

Beyond staff training, UK universities are not required to ensure their security systems meet accepted standards, or even that their staff are not criminals (unlike nightclub door staff, university security officers in the UK are not required to undergo background checks).

At more responsible universities, efforts are made to acquire optional British Security Standards – for example, to ensure CCTV systems are fit for use, or that background checks are performed on new members of the security team.

Raising the standard

ProtectED is a membership organisation for universities seeking to prioritise the safety, security and well-being of their students and to work towards accreditation of their policies, processes and practice in this vital area. The first national initiative of its kind, ProtectED has been developed by a dedicated team of academics and security experts, supported by stakeholders such as the British Council, Security Industry Authority and others.

ProtectED offers a sector-wide solution to address the concerns of students, their parents and loved ones that have become more prominent over recent years.

As well as covering issues relating to university security, the ProtectED Code of Practice includes four 'instruments' that address specific student experience factors: student well-being and mental health; international students; student harassment and sexual assault; and the student night out.

Embedded throughout ProtectED is an emphasis on partnership working (both within the university, and with external organisations such as the police, NHS, charities, etc); on training for frontline staff; and on data collection and appropriate sharing. All recommendations draw upon good practice guidance and case studies, creating a standard to which universities can aspire and in which students can be confident.

Many higher education commentators in the UK are calling for universities to adopt a 'whole university approach' to student safety and well-being and ProtectED’s emphasis on partnership working is designed to break down the silos within higher education institutions that prevent individuals, departments and organisations from working together towards a common and desirable goal. The aim is to create safe environments where students and staff can learn, work and thrive.

Baroness Ruth Henig is a British historian, an honorary fellow of Lancaster University, a Labour party politician and a patron of ProtectED. ProtectED is seeking 12 universities to become ProtectED Founder Members willing to convert talk into action.