How universities can do more to keep women safe

Claire Humble, head of safety, security and facilities at Teesside University, describes some of the successful strategies available to universities

It is now five and a half years since business secretary Sajid Javid asked Universities UK to recommend ways to reduce violence against women on university campuses. His words at the time are worth quoting: “I would expect my daughter to be as safe as my son on any campus in this country.”

But progress has been slow. In 2020, the Office for Students expressed disappointment that adoption of the recommendations was neither widespread nor consistent across the sector. The apparent inertia, by some universities, is puzzling given that universities have clear legal duties through the Equalities Act 2010 and the Public Sector Equality Duty, according to former Minister of State for Universities, Jo Johnson.

Women’s calls for safety gain momentum

Concern about sexual assault, sexual harassment, safety, and wider equality and respect are all on the same spectrum, and never far from the minds of most women. Now, for the most tragic of reasons, an urgent national conversation is taking place.

We’ve seen this kind of soul searching before, but an important difference today is the effect of social media. Women and girls are now better able to share their experiences of harassment, to call out misogyny and to demand that these issues be taken seriously.

This is a vital issue for the higher education sector too, as universities explore how to improve protection for women against immediate physical and psychological threats.

First, let’s examine the facts. A recent YouGov survey found that 97% of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed, while 80% of women of all ages had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. In 2016, a TUC/Everyday Sexism report found 52% of women had experienced sexual harassment at work. One of the saddest findings of this study – which perhaps should not surprise anyone – is that of the 20% who had reported sexism, 75% said nothing had changed, while 16% said they had been treated worse as a result.

The problem is especially concerning for younger women, in other words the demographic that universities mostly have responsibility for. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, sexual assault is most common among younger women, with about ten percent of those aged 16 to 24 having been a victim in the past year, and one in 40 young women saying they had been raped, with fewer than one in ten reporting their experiences to the police.

Women’s concerns about sexual assault, harassment and safety are on the rise


Calls to ‘Reclaim the Campus’

Across UK universities female students, academics, and staff have shared recent experiences of harassment, abuse, and assault. Many of their stories can be found on sites like Everyone’s Invited.

Concerns and demand for change are also being articulated and amplified by the Reclaim the Campus campaign, led by students and recent graduates.

In response, I believe that, at last, more universities are intent on introducing practical measures and making this the priority issue it should be.

At Teesside, with our 18,000-plus student body, our city centre location, and our large cohort of international students, we know that security and safety are vital to our success and prosperity as an institution. This awareness has underpinned our efforts over recent years to modernise our department and improve outcomes. We’ve brought security fully in-house, increased the diversity of our team with a more representative gender balance, and improved our skillset, for example with mental health first aid training.

Like many other universities we’ve also introduced new technologies to improve situational awareness and emergency response, and an emphasis on positively engaging with and assisting the student community with more ‘friendly’ uniforms, and body cams.

Claire Humble briefs incoming students on safety and encourages the use of SafeZone


Engage, educate and empower

Our strategy focuses on three major priorities: engagement, education, and empowerment. Our safety and security team maintains a more visible and accessible presence 24/7 and is now refocused toward listening and engagement. We have introduced a student ambassador programme, giving student volunteers the opportunity to gain experience working with security patrols, further improving engagement with the wider student body and broadening access to resources and services such as counselling.

We are in no doubt that this new emphasis on customer service, student welfare and personal wellbeing has led to improved student satisfaction and retention. In the 2018/19 International Student Barometer results, Teesside University international students reported more positive views about safety and security.

Technology is playing an important new role for us too. A primary resource, and one that our Ambassadors promote heavily, is SafeZone from CriticalArc. This solution can be used by students very easily on their phones to call for emergency help or general assistance at the touch of a button. SafeZone is much more than this – it’s a sophisticated platform that gives our team much greater visibility and control over events. When an alert is raised our officers instantly know who has called, and where they are, enabling them to acknowledge the call and quickly respond – typically now 50% faster than before.

I believe it’s a notable sign of success, and testament to the value of this technology, that adoption has been very high among our students. It has been downloaded by thousands of them and is used regularly both on and off campus, including by those who study abroad. Over the last two years we’ve seen many examples of students being helped, including those who have become disoriented being brought back to campus through our free taxi program, those who’ve been escorted back to their accommodation late at night, and those abroad who’ve lost wallets and passports.

Students can use SafeZone on their phones


What matters to women?

These are all the types of day-to-day incidents that, in the past, would not have been addressed or even noticed by security teams. And some are particularly relevant and important to women. Getting lost in the wrong part of town at night is never pleasant, and for women, these situations can be especially worrying and traumatic. The students we help in this way are always incredibly grateful and impressed by the fact that we’re looking out for them – their sense of relief is often very obvious.

Universities need to provide easy-to-understand information telling students and staff how they can report or seek support if they experience or witness any incident of harassment or sexual misconduct. Security departments should be forging closer relationships with the student unions to promote these messages, and initiatives such as healthy relationships counselling should be encouraged.

At Teesside, our security team is actively supporting and raising awareness of the ‘Yes to Respect’ website which is promoted by the Student Union. This is a forum that allows students to talk to counsellors about unhealthy relationships, anonymously if needed, and that directs them to the proper resources overseen by the student wellbeing team.

Yes, we need wider changes in society. And we should not kid ourselves that the deep-seated problems of violence against women will be solved just by better security and smarter tech.

But now is the time to do everything we can, including implementing these practical measures supported by technology to reduce risks to women in those situations that we know present a higher danger.

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