Why don’t more women feel safe on campus?

Female students’ safety on campus is more important than ever – we take a look at what practical steps universities can take to make women feel safe

University is a unique moment in time for any full-time student. Some treat it as one big holiday, with their greatest responsibility being remembering to buy bin bags, while for others it’s a three-to-five-year slog of exams, part-time work and debt management. They may feel intense homesickness, have philosophical epiphanies, discover new identities, or fall in love – with friends, partners or political ideology.

What’s also unique about university is the threat of assault, particularly for female students. The British Crime Survey shows that young women aged 16–24 have a higher risk of being a victim of gender-based sexual violence and violent crime compared with older women (NUS, 2010), and in 2018 Bristol SU’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ survey found that only 70% of female students feel safe on campus compared to 97% of men. Campaigns like Reclaim the Campus calling for universities to be safer and free from sexual violence for everyone show that students want better.

And it’s not just students. One in 10 college and university staff has experienced workplace sexual violence in the past five years, according to a recent University and College Union (UCU) survey of its members and representatives.

The murder of Sarah Everard by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens highlighted an issue many knew to be deep rooted in society. A fifth of women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16 (MoJ, Home Office, ONS, 2013). In the year ending March 2020, the Office for National Statistics estimated 1.4 million women in England and Wales had been raped, or had faced attempted rape in their lives, compared to about 87,000 men. In total, 98.5% of the rapists were identified as men. In the past decade, there have been 4,493 male victims of killings and 2,075 female victims. More than nine out of 10 killers were men.

Practical solutions to safety, like good lighting and security cameras, go some way to preventing attacks and can be adopted easily by universities. This must be balanced by preventative action like workshops and training – work which costs time and energy, but is necessary if we are to correct a culture that has sent its tendrils into every part of society.

Practical solutions, such as a physical security presence, are only part of the solution


Practical steps

Campuses are complex environments. With their own accommodation, teaching, nightclubs, shops, banks and sports facilities, they are better thought of as miniature cities that never ‘turn off’.

Darren Chalmers-Stephens, group chief operating officer at Critical Arc, a safety and security solution provider, explains how on-campus security has evolved: “Ten years ago universities used to operate within a traditional nine-to-five structure, and security and safety departments were best described as bouncers. What’s changed is that universities effectively have 24-hour campuses, and safety and security is now more of a pastoral safeguarding function as opposed to a security function.”

Within a student population there’s a “collision of cultures, languages and backgrounds”, as Darren puts it. New students are “unfamiliar with the setting, the processes or how to engage with the services and really unsure of how to get help in an emergency”. The relative lack of life experience people have in their early 20s is an added complication, as is having a still-immature brain – one with very active emotional processing and weak emotional control.

Designed to manage the unique challenges of on-campus safety is Critical Arc’s SafeZone, a unified safety, security and emergency management solution which streamlines and strengthens on-site security teams’ capacity to respond to incidents. If an institution adopts SafeZone, its staff and students can download the app to use in emergencies. Raising an alert via the app will immediately convey the location and type of incident to the SafeZone Command and all responders, who will know the identity of the person calling for help.

“Safety and security is now more of a pastoral safeguarding function as opposed to a security function” – Darren Chalmers-Stephens, Critical Arc

Other features of SafeZone include wearable panic buttons that are paired with mobile phones for discreet distress calls, and anonymous tip-reporting for personal situations.

Though, as Darren says: “Ultimately, it’s part of the bigger picture that should include the messaging of the institution, training, education as a whole – this technology is only one part of the cog.”

NUS made practical recommendations for keeping students safe on campus in its 2014 study of women students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault, Hidden Marks:

● institutions should provide information to new students about the local area which would allow them to make informed judgements about where they go and when;
● transport services should be provided for students who need to leave the institution or students’ union late at night;
● security staff in students’ unions should receive training to identify and deal with harassment and violence against women, and to identify and help people who have been victims of drink-spiking;
● estates departments should consult with students in order to carry out a ‘safety audit’ of their campus, including halls of residences.

A unified safety-management solution means security teams can respond more quickly and efficiently to issues


Preventative action

A legal briefing produced by End Violence Against Women outlines how universities are legally obliged to ensure the safety of female students: “The law says that universities and colleges must be able to demonstrate that they took women’s equality and safety into account when developing policy on accommodation, governance for student societies, campus security and more.”

Advice in the briefing for addressing violence includes investing in staff training, and violence prevention and bystander programmes, and linking universities to a local specialist support service like Rape Crisis.

Such methods encourage an analysis of the attitudes that can cause violence, and work at re-educating mindsets.

Sara Khan, NUS VP for Liberation and Equality says: “In order to address gendered violence against women and femmes, we need to understand the systemic reasons why this violence occurs and address them.

Re-traumatising and objectifying mitigating circumstances processes that put students on trial must be abolished, taking a more flexible and compassionate approach towards students so that they will be believed and their education and career prospects will not be affected.

“University reporting systems must believe survivors of gendered violence instead of putting them on trial, prioritising a person-centred, trauma-centred approach instead of a punitive one. No punishment will undo the violence that women experience; we do not end violence by creating further violence. Punitive action has not ended gendered violence and it will not.

“Furthermore, policing and security on campus has not ended gendered violence and it will not. Such carceral conditions only create further violence towards women, especially women of colour. Institutions must shift resources away from policing and securitisation, and towards mental health care and support. This is the only effective response to gendered violence, and this is the only path towards our collective liberation.”

There has been a national backlash to police forces’ telling women how to keep themselves safe, following Sarah Everard’s murder. One advisory tweet from Croydon Met Police Station told women to avoid walking alone and to keep to well-lit areas – the type of attitude that Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), says is not tackling the problem at all.

“The NPCC [National Police Chiefs Council] and APCC [Association of Police and Crime Commissioners] must seriously consider why police responses are continually charging women with keeping ourselves safe, when they should be addressing harmful sexist and racist policing cultures wherever they are found and preventing VAWG from happening in the first place.

“We are yet to see any commitment and accountability for the meaningful internal work needed to shift the institutional cultures and practices that excuse and enable this harmful behaviour.”

The NUS believes resources should be directed away from securitisation and towards mental health support



Messaging from universities is critical. A 2014 NUS study recommended that “institutions and students’ unions should adopt a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to non-verbal and verbal sexual harassment” which would “send out a strong signal that such behaviour is unacceptable both within and outside of the learning environment”.

It also recommends that “institutions, in partnership with students’ unions, should develop a comprehensive cross-institutional policy to tackle violence against women students; this policy should enable students and staff to recognise and effectively deal with violence and harassment against women students, outline how support will be provided to victims, contain steps explaining how reporting will be encouraged, and set out how the institution will respond to violence perpetrated by its students”.

Emphasising that victims will be believed if they come forward and that nothing the victim did in the situation made them deserve to be assaulted should be a key part of the messaging about safety. In 2005, an Amnesty poll found that a third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped. One would hope that attitudes have improved in the 16 years since, but rape and assaults are still being unacknowledged by the victims themselves, with one US study estimating that 60% of female university students have experienced unacknowledged rape.

The University of Bath has made its stance on sexual harassment and assault clear with its #NeverOk campaign which provides training, resources and marketing materials to “empower people to speak out against harassment”. Resources such as posters, badges and fridge magnets are conversation starters – they can subtly challenge ways of thinking and dispel damaging beliefs that perpetuate the attitudes which cause assaults. Bath’s harassment prevention training is open to all staff and students and is constantly being developed, and its online reporting tool enables anyone to easily report discrimination, misconduct, harrassment or assault, whether they wish to be anonymous or not.

Culture does not change overnight, but universities have a lot of power in helping it move forward. People attend higher education at such an impressionable age in their lives, which means it really matters what their institution has to say about, and the actions it takes to prevent, gendered violence.

Head of security? Here’s your checklist

How universities can work to address violence against women students
● Monitor levels of violence against women through surveys of female students and staff
● Ensure the college or university is linked to a local specialist support service like Rape Crisis for student referral whether or not abuse is reported to police
● Invest in staff training on violence against women and girls
● Develop policies with staff, students and women’s groups to address all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) alongside clear response procedures
● Implement violence prevention and bystander programmes which empower students to recognise abuse and intervene when they witness problematic behaviour.

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