The university sector seems confused about what is meant by safeguarding, and how far universities should go to ‘take care’ of their students. The debate seems to be taking us beyond the letter of the law to make campuses as safe as possible for students who choose to invest their time, future life prospects and future debt with us.
Staff in universities who manage services, or work directly with children and vulnerable adults, are aware of their responsibilities and reporting duties. Areas such as teacher education and outreach teams are comfortable working within child protection frameworks, and those in healthcare and social work understand the boundaries around working with vulnerable adults. It is known that particular attention needs to be paid to students who are admitted under the age of 18, and additional measures are put in place by accommodation teams and registry. There will be a safeguarding officer who knows the rules and can advise on incidents and risk.
For the majority of programme areas, it was and arguably still is, the general view that most students are adults, and that they should be treated as such. It is also the general view that it is the tacit role of the university to help them grow up by leaving them alone to experiment, make mistakes, test boundaries and mess up as they transition away from parents and into independent living.
But that was then, and this is now. Students are not all just 18 and not all of them have been launched out of stable family nests, well equipped to make their next fledgling adult steps. Students are diverse and bring very different life experiences that university staff cannot understand. The archetypes of students which we currently hold should be questioned. We need to build services and support around the needs of students by finding out who they are, in order to create an environment that guards the safety of all students and staff.
The non-academic experience is now as important as the academic credentials of a university. When students are ‘shopping around’ they will be paying attention to many aspects of their imagined life at each place they consider. The quality marks for teaching and learning are becoming easier to read with Bronze, Silver and Gold badges shining out from university websites. Universities make their destinations attractive and boast various unique selling points, but safety is not a popular one in the highly competitive environment in which we find ourselves now. ‘World class’, ‘excellent’ – definitely, ‘sustainable’, maybe, but safe – not often
Tragic incidents and accounts of students who have struggled highlight how vulnerable students are at times. Coping with the responsibility of responding makes some staff vulnerable too. It has become apparent that guarding safety is a concern for all of us in the sector.
The higher education minister’s recent statement that part of the purpose of universities is to provide emotional support is welcome. It puts mental health high up on the education agenda. However, his assertion that universities are in ‘loco parentis’ is not; it only furthers the confusion about safeguarding and responsibility.
A Mental Health Charter may be a good way to provide a baseline for provision, so that students and universities are clear about what is expected in terms of service levels. For Student Services teams who work hard to respond to demand with the resources they have, a Mental Health Charter may help them make the case for a standard of provision that copes with student need and expectations.
Governing bodies need to be aware of how formal safeguarding risk is managed. Increasingly they are being expected to be aware of other risks relating to student safety. For example, UUK advises that data about incidents of sexual violence and harassment must be reported to university councils, and change programmes around mental health are recommending a ‘whole institution approach’. To begin to achieve this in a genuine and informed way, and build an environment that is safe for all a university’s members and participants, more information and data should be provided on the work of support services.
A sector-wide way of evidencing how universities make efforts to ensure the safety of its students and staff would allow ‘soft’ student and staff support services to provide an accountable picture to senior management teams and governing bodies, so that resources can be allocated where they are needed. If the proposed Mental Health Charter sets out helpful, student-informed standards for the sector, we might find ways to be the best for being safe – and be proud of it.
Sara Doherty is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin.
The Halpin team includes experts in student experience, equality and diversity, safeguarding, governance and risk management. If you need support to develop your policies and practices in this area contact [email protected]