Many young people experience mixed feelings at this time of year – poised to embark on an exciting life at university while wondering how they will cope with living independently, managing finances, making friends and keeping up with coursework.
These worries are completely understandable and often subside in time. However, some student safety and wellbeing concerns continue to make higher education headlines, suggesting that universities must act to address them. These include: reports of a ‘mental health crisis’ at UK universities and the pressure on mental health services to meet demand; the worrying number of female students experiencing sexual harassment and assault on campus and on a night out; and incidents of staff-to-student sexual harassment, described in a Guardian report as a hidden pattern of harassment.
Survey findings suggest that hate crime is also an issue at UK universities – an NUS study with LGBT students found that one in three trans students had experienced bullying or harassment, and one in five students were either bullied or harassed in relation to their sexual orientation. Further to this, crime statistics indicate that individuals in the 16-24 age group (which the majority of students fall into) are at a greater risk of theft, including mugging and domestic burglary, than the general population.
Almost three years ago, academics at the University of Salford began work to better understand and address the issues impacting student safety and wellbeing. They held focus groups with university security managers, police, and students’ union sabbatical officers, and surveyed almost 900 NUS student members. The team also undertook a comprehensive review of existing guidance material on student safety and wellbeing. It became clear that the quality and level of student support varied widely between universities, and that there was a lack of reliable data on the nature and extent of the problems affecting students.
This research resulted in the development of ProtectED; a sector-wide accreditation scheme to assess – in a standardised and recognisable way – the approach taken by UK universities to ensure their students’ safety, security and wellbeing, and to significantly improve HEI practices in this area. Prior to ProtectED, no such standard existed for HEIs, meaning that while prospective students might be able to establish the academic merits of an institution, they had no way of identifying and comparing the level of student support offered.
The ProtectED Code of Practice launched earlier this year, with support from significant stakeholders in HE student security and wellbeing. Drawing on the research, it focuses on five areas fundamental to delivering an excellent student experience:
core institutional safety and security
student wellbeing and mental health
international student safety and wellbeing (British Council research suggests international students are concerned about safety when coming to the UK)
student harassment and sexual assault
and the student night out (including promoting safe taxi schemes, and ensuring venue staff are trained as active bystanders, to help prevent sexual assaults).
Code of Practice measures are supported by case studies of university schemes and initiatives, recognising good practice and offering guidance and inspiration to other universities. The measures also reflect best practice guidance on a wide range of student wellbeing issues. For example, all Universities UK 'Changing the Culture' (2016) taskforce recommendations for addressing sexual harassment, hate crimes and cyberbullying are incorporated, along with additional measures for addressing staff-to-student sexual harassment.
Image: the University of Salford
The confidential accreditation process requires universities to appraise their policies, services and procedures covering student safety and wellbeing, against indicators described in the ProtectED Code of Practice. To achieve the ProtectED Accredited Institution award, universities must demonstrate that they appropriately address all Code of Practice measures. This is verified by a peer review panel of sector experts, and a verification visit by trained assessors and student assessors.
ProtectED takes a preventative approach to student safety and wellbeing. This is achieved through redefining how frontline university staff are recruited, trained and supported, and adopting a whole campus approach to raising awareness of the issues negatively impacting student safety and wellbeing, as well as the available support services. For example, ProtectED mental health measures require universities to formally recognise the role students play in supporting friends who are experiencing mental health difficulties. The student mental health charity Student Minds’ Look After Your Mate programme offers training to help staff provide students with the confidence and skills to support their peers.
Partnership working is another central theme of ProtectED. Institutions must create formal links between their internal services, students’ union and external agencies (including police, NHS, charities and neighbouring HEIs) to share data, expertise and good practice in student safety and wellbeing. HEIs also need to facilitate peer-to-peer support for students, in order to effect positive change. The University of Gloucestershire’s Student Community Patrol scheme is a good example of this; students work alongside Gloucestershire Constabulary to patrol the city’s streets, helping to keep fellow students and the wider community safe. Student volunteers are given first aid training and police training in managing challenging situations.
ProtectED member institutions are also required to collect data relating to student safety and wellbeing and share it with ProtectED. The data is anonymised and aggregated to create a reliable evidence base. This is crucial to understanding the problems which contemporary students are facing and is used to inform research into the causes and effective responses.
The requirement to collect data addresses concerns that emerged during ProtectED focus groups – some security managers explained that their university did not record incidents such as student sexual assaults in order avoid freedom of information requests that might cause reputational damage. Universities in Bristol are already taking ownership of this issue with the establishment of The Joint Forum; a collaborative effort between the universities, police, students’ unions and charities to address harassment and sexual assault, including formal data sharing agreements between the universities and police.
As the ProtectED project progresses, the hope is that a network of accredited HEIs will be created, working together to share knowledge, ideas and good practice solutions while targeting resources to better meet students’ needs and allow them to focus on reaching their potential.