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Universities must rethink how they ensure student safety, security and wellbeing

Security at university isn’t just about what happens on campus.

Students may be more at risk of crime and mental ill-health at some universities than others because of differences in the way institutions consider the safety and well-being of their students. Last year, 2.3m students started university in the UK, representing 4% of the population. These students are at greater risk of crime than other people in Britain. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 19% of full-time students were victims of crime in 2014-15, compared to 16% of all adults in the general population.

Full-time students experienced higher levels of victimisation than the general population for a number of crimes, including burglary, violence, domestic violence, mugging, robbery and theft. Specific student groups face different issues of personal safety. Recent reports show that women – who make up 56% of new UK university students – are at risk of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses.

We know that international students, who make up 19% of all UK university students, are increasingly concerned about safety. This influences their choice about whether to study in the UK or another country.

Students at risk

But universities need to stop thinking about security purely in terms of “crime on campus” and focus more on the wider pastoral care and well-being of students throughout their university life.

Living away from home for the first time is a big step. Combine this with the pressure of university life such as making new friends, homesickness, financial worries, meeting deadlines and exams – and it is perhaps unsurprising that students are also at greater risk of mental ill health.

One 2004 study involving 250 students found 52% of UK students showed evidence of psychiatric disorder – such as anxiety and severe depression – compared to 30% of the adult population. And a 2015 NUS survey of 1,093 students found that 78% of them experienced mental health issues in the previous year.

Understandably, university counselling services report significant increases in demand as troubled students seek help. But without appropriate support, mental ill-health may result in self-harm or even suicide. As the graph below shows, between 2007 and 2011, 518 full-time students aged over 18 in England and Wales committed suicide, with male students most at risk. Over the same period, annual student suicides rose 50% despite total student numbers only increasing by 14%.

A fragmented approach

Tuition fees have changed students’ expectation of universities – students increasingly think of themselves as consumers and universities must now compete on the quality of their services as well as academic reputation. There has been some suggestion that universities have been “negligent” in accepting their pastoral responsibilities.

While a number of universities are taking steps to improve student safety and well-being services, consistency remains an issue across the sector.

Traditionally, university security has been more focused on the campus, rather than on students themselves. The priority has been protecting university facilities, rather than tackling student safety, security and well-being. This needs to change.

Unfortunately, there is currently no comprehensive best practice guide for universities looking to improve the way they do this. As a result, approaches are fragmented and there is a lack of consistency in the range and quality of university security services and student mental health support services.

Easy comparison of the situation across universities is limited by the lack of mandatory, or consistent, recording of incidents. A well-publicised example is sexual assault. Using freedom of information requests, The Guardian reported in 2015 that less than half of Russell Group universities record all student allegations of sexual harassment or assault.

In our continuing research into the different ways universities are addressing safety, security and well-being, one security manager suggested this lack of incident recording was by design. This manager believed that some universities are selective about recording incidents to reduce the risk of potential reputational damage from freedom of information requests by journalists. But we also found university security managers who were carefully recording – and making publicly available – all incidents occurring on campus.

We need a change of perspective. Universities should acknowledge the broader continuum of pastoral care for which they are responsible – from traditional security to student well-being and mental health services, and from on-campus facilities to the wider student experience.

Delivering this requires universities to work in collaboration across the services they deliver and with the police, NHS, local authorities and student venues. This is starting to happen in some institutions, but a more unified approach is needed across the sector.

This article written during the development of ProtectED was originally published in The Conversation.

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