Emma Bond is director of research, head of the graduate school and professor of socio-technical research at the University of Suffolk.

Andy Phippen is a professor of social responsibility in information technology at the University of Plymouth and is a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk.

Student safeguarding is a well-established responsibility for higher education in the UK but responsibilities for online safeguarding are only recently becoming recognised across the sector. Online harms are well acknowledged in the compulsory educational sector as exemplified by the Ofsted inspection framework (2018) and the Department for Education’s (2018) Keeping children safe in education statutory guidance for schools and colleges, do not cease when young people enter into late adolescence and early adulthood.

The launch of the Universities UK “Changing the Culture” report in 2016 exposed the experiences of violence against women, hate crime and harassment affecting university students and called for further action to specifically tackle online harassment and hate crime. However, in spite of a duty of care accorded to universities in the UK to act reasonably in students’ best interests, to protect their wellbeing and provide appropriate support, there remains a dearth of guidance in relation to current practice and regulation around online safety within the higher education sector.

In the dark

In the last few years the press have reported a number of high profile cases of online abuse, harmful and hateful content and risky online behaviour that has left the sector reeling. Many universities remain unsure of how best to support and protect victims of abuse, how to sanction offenders and how to manage the reputational risks to their institutions. It is clear that across the sector that there is little help and guidance available.

Furthermore, there are a number of inaccurate, unhelpful assumptions around student knowledge and awareness of online risks as they transition to higher education. Terms such as “digital natives” are extremely unhelpful, stereotyping a whole generation who are, in some inexplicable way, digitally aware simply as a result growing up in an increasingly digital society. Yet, stark digital divides remain across socio-economic, gender and geographic clusters and there is, in reality a considerable diversity in young people’s ability to use and their knowledge of the internet and their opportunities to access and interact online.

There also appears to be a mistaken assumption across the sector that students receive “online safety” education in schools and, therefore, transition to university equipped to deal with issues of online harassment, abuse and extortion with no further need for awareness raising or education around critical digital literacies. Moreover, as borne out in recent press coverage, institutions are sometimes concerned that, if they publicly address issues of online safeguarding they may raise reputational risks as a “university with an online harassment problem”.

Many universities are unaware of, or fail to acknowledge the role of digital technologies and social media in students’ everyday lives and a lack of understanding of their rights, legislation and social behaviours can place them at risk of harassment. This lack of understanding also places students at further risk in that they can sometimes fail to recognise such behaviours as harmful and do not know how to report, nor how they might turn to their institution for support.

Who’s at risk?

A recent survey by Brook revealed that, while 56 per cent of students have been subject to unwanted sexual experiences, only 15 per cent realised they have been sexually harassed. Moreover, a quarter of women (26 per cent) had been sent unwanted sexually explicit messages but only 3 per cent reported it. Research shows that some groups of students are more vulnerable to online harassment, for example, due to disability, ethnicity, sexuality or religious belief. However, due to their protected characteristics they are even more unlikely to come forward to disclose abuse.

This lack of awareness of the legal and rights issues associated with online harassment increase vulnerability, and unable to access appropriate support. Often they are frightened to leave their accommodation, attend lectures or communicate with digital technologies for fear of further abuse. These behaviours have serious consequences for mental health and reports of depression, anxiety and increased isolation are common. In many cases, students have had to move house or even end their studies to escape from the harassment they have received.

Take responsibility

There has been much discussion about changing the culture in higher education around student safeguarding and how difficult this is. Perhaps it’s time to take a step away from the need for change and instead, we would argue that is important that this this culture is challenged, and not normalised. What is also important is that universities are not bystanders in these situations and as we are aware of this abuse happening on our campuses and beyond, we need to improve the level of proactivity and increase a victim focus that is currently sadly lacking across the sector.

Evidence to date suggests that where universities have engaged with these issues they have been successful in supporting their student communities. For example, at the University of Suffolk simple digital signage that plays short awareness raising videos outside of lecture theatres can start conversations that can continue in the classroom, even drawing in subject specific debates and issues. Moreover, sharing these videos and resources on social media allow students to consume theme focussed information about these issues in a bite sized and engaging format.

We are also aware that in a number of institutions trying to “reinvent the wheel” – providing in house training and support systems that lack quality assurance and fail to acknowledge the availability of specialist resources, help and support around issues faced by their students. For example, the national Revenge Porn Helpline has a wealth of experience in dealing with victims of image based abuse, and has links with all major social media providers, giving victims clear and detailed legal advice about how and when to address the abuse and disclose to law enforcement. Cifas has excellent free online resources around online fraud and identity theft ideal for raising awareness with students and staff. There are excellent resources already available and many services and organisations already willing to help, if universities are aware of them.

Getting serious

However, one area where we see little evidence of best practice is around embedded knowledge and understanding of these issues within the curriculum. While this observation might results in groans from the sector about adding “yet another social issue” into a detailed and carefully thought out degree programme, we should remind the sector that these are fundamental issues affecting student attainment, attendance and employability. A student, for example, who being harassed by another student is not in a position to be able to fully engage with their learning, affecting their grades and ultimately success in their degree and beyond. We also know that many employees can also become subject to workplace abuse or harassment and, thus, equipping our students with the necessary knowledge and understanding to help them recognise this is wrong, is surely part of developing them as critical, socially engaged individuals in the workplace.

Students’ unions have an important role to play yet their role should not be independent of the wider university. What works is a holistic response where everybody with responsibility for students across the university works with wider external stakeholders, to all engage with the issues of online safeguarding. It is everyone’s responsibility. Course administrators, for example, might be the front line in recognising these issues, as they are often the first people to hear of student concerns via extenuating circumstances, lack of attendance or poor performance. Equally, student support and counselling services need to be aware of how to support students experiencing digital harassment and abuse.

A leadership issue

However, this holistic approach has to be driven through effective governance. Senior management and boards need to understand their safeguarding responsibilities toward students and staff, and how digital technologies impact on this. Those with strategic roles around curriculum need to understand how this fits into course content and pastoral development. How many universities have critical digital literacy or online safeguarding as part of the portfolio for a deputy vice chancellor? Who on the board scrutinises this strategy and practice at their institution to ensure effective online safeguarding and demonstrate due diligence? There should be clear governance structures that show how strategy transforms into practice and where all stakeholders fit and make valuable contributions to a university culture that is aware, and supportive of, the problems students face related to online harassment and abuse.

What is clear from our research and discussions with students is that these issues are here to stay, students are worried about them and feel vulnerable and unsupported. Through challenging the culture around online safeguarding, we can make them feel that we care about their emotional wellbeing, and know how to help them tackle online abuse if they are unfortunate enough to be subject to it. This shouldn’t be something students face in isolation from their university.


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