Universities launch drug-use taskforce

Taskforce chairman Prof Nic Beech said the drugs-use taskforce signals a “proactive approach with student safety and health at its heart”

Universities are forming a drug-use taskforce to tackle the harm of illegal substances on UK higher education campuses.

The taskforce will frame the problem “as a welfare and health issue”. It will investigate the supply of, demand for and use of drugs in the student population – and develop recommendations for universities on tackling the problems.

The taskforce is chaired by Prof Nic Beech, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University London. Among the taskforce’s special advisors are Prof Dame Carol Black, who recently led an independent review of drugs for the government; Dr Ed Day, National Recovery Champion; and Prof Owen Bowden-Jones, the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).

Universities UK will work with GuildHE, Independent HE and Unite Students on the taskforce. The organisations said the work follows increasing concern among university leaders about the impact of drug use on learning, mental health, student addiction and deaths.

Prof Beech said drug use “is still largely an unspoken issue across UK universities”.

“The launch of this work signals our firm intention to develop a proactive approach with student safety and health at its heart to help universities understand and address drug use,” he added.

The university taskforce announced today (Wednesday 9 February) will prepare a report based on a “wide-ranging student survey” later this year.

It will engage government departments, the NUS, accommodation providers, public health agencies, charities, the police, and student panels.

I am pleased to support this university sector-led initiative and particularly welcome the emphasis on better understanding student drug use and what works to address it
Prof Dame Carol Black

A senior police officer – Jason Harwin, drugs lead for the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) – warned ahead of welcome week 2021 that organised crime gangs are targeting new students with drugs.

A survey of nearly 3,000 students by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2018 revealed that 39% actively used drugs – with a further 17% having done so. Cannabis, ecstasy/MDMA and cocaine were the most commonly taken substances. A quarter of respondents felt there was a problematic drug culture on campus – but 62% said they did not have a problem with recreational usage.

Dame Carol said: “One of the key findings of my independent review was the rise in recreational drug use and associated harms among young adults.

“The government’s 10-year drug strategy responded to this finding with a commitment to reducing drug use among young people. I am pleased to support this university sector-led initiative and particularly welcome the emphasis on better understanding student drug use and what works to address it.”

In 2019, UUK offered the sector guidance on tackling dangerous initiation ceremonies after the death of a first-year student at Newcastle University fresher event from excessive drinking.

In summer 2021, the University of Birmingham launched a pilot programme for students recovering from addiction. Dr Day – who is also assisting the new university taskforce – leads the Birmingham project. “There is an overwhelming lack of peer support for abstinence in student environments,” said Dr Day. “Traditional 12-step recovery programmes work well for adults in middle-age, but young adults have a difficult time finding a social niche that is both free of temptation but also supportive and understanding.”


Read more: Police, universities and local authorities must jointly tackle spiking, says shadow minister

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