In recent years there has been a series of high-profile incidents concerning the securitisation of university campuses.
In 2020, a Black first-year student at the University of Manchester was apprehended by campus security services and pinned up against a wall whilst officers attempted to take his ID card. He argued that this was because he was “Black and wearing a hoodie”.
Just days earlier, as part of its response to the pandemic, his university had erected “huge metal barriers” around campus, which students suggested left them feeling “trapped” and “imprisoned”.
In 2021, footage circulated of two student protesters being pinned to the floor by Sheffield Hallam security. These are just some of the stories that have made the headlines, though there are others, and many more that simply haven’t hit the media.
Whose campus, whose security?
Despite cases such as these, and significant protest and mobilisation amongst students, scant attention has been paid to the role that security services (and the police with whom they sometimes work) play, or the impact that they have, on university campuses.
Along with our colleagues, Kerry Pimblott and Harry Taylor, we address this neglect with the release of our report Whose Campus, Whose Security? published by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity.
The culmination of a three year, mixed-methods research project, the report centres the perspectives of students as it highlights serious concerns regarding students’ views on, and experiences of, campus security services.
If universities are serious about their commitments to the student experience, and to equality, diversity and inclusion, urgent action must be taken to meaningfully address the issues raised in the report.
Whilst the majority of the students we surveyed reported seeing campus security services at least several times a week (60.5 per cent), less than a third (30.8 per cent) thought that university security staff keep students safe on campus.
Pointing to how the experiences of students are differentiated, this figure was significantly lower for those with protected characteristics (29.3 per cent) than it was for those without protected characteristics (47.6 per cent).
By reviewing job descriptions and security policies, as well as analysing students’ accounts, we found that security services are expected to take on an expanding, and oftentimes conflicting, set of roles and responsibilities.
This perhaps goes some way toward explaining why we found students to be so uncertain about the extent to which security services keep them safe. That said, it would be a mistake to assume that the issues detailed in our report could be resolved through changes to job descriptions alone.
Race and targeting
Many of the students we surveyed felt that “race” was a key factor in determining the likelihood of encounters with security personnel, as well as police on campus. In the interviews and much of the survey data, there was an abiding sense amongst respondents that, as one interviewee put it, “people from other races who aren’t white are targeted more”.
This wasn’t mere speculation but something borne out through responses from racially minoritised students who reported, for example, being “stopped and searched every time” they go to the SU, or being fined by police officers under Covid legislation whilst their white peers were not subject to the same fines.
Taking these and other accounts seriously suggests that securitisation is an often ignored and/or under-recognised way in which institutional racism is reproduced within higher education.
Respondents also raised concerns that student activists were particularly targeted through the securitisation of campuses. Some respondents told us how they encountered security officers who were “very aggressive”, “extremely unfriendly”, and “very hostile” during protests.
Others told us about online harassment and surveillance (which UoM Rent Strike have detailed online), and others still reported witnessing and being subject to physical assault from security officers during protests.
All of this seems to be consistent with a long history of the repression of student activism, and a recent intensification of the British State’s attacks on protest and activists evidenced through the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Public Order Act 2023, and the policing of protests in recent years. Nevertheless, it was antithetical to what many students felt the university should be.
Spending on security
The mental health and wellbeing of students is widely understood to be a significant and growing problem in higher education. The Office for Students found that the rate of student disclosures of mental health conditions was nearly 7 times higher in 2020/21 than it was a decade earlier.
Some might find it alarming, therefore, that data we collected via Freedom of Information requests revealed that the combined spending at our three interview site universities (Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Manchester, and University of Salford) was far greater for campus security services (£8 million in 2020/21) than for counselling and mental health services (£3 million in 2020/21).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, we found that security services are often expected to act as first responders for students experiencing mental health crises. Whilst we spoke to students who shared positive experiences in such circumstances that point to models for good practice, many others raised concerns suggesting that security officers are often ill-prepared and/or ill-equipped to respond effectively, in some cases significantly worsening harm.
As one respondent recalled:
“I found them quite intimidating and scary and the big bulky police-type uniform they wore made my distress worse – it felt like I was in trouble and everyone was looking at me because I was with security.
Like mental health, gender based violence has been highlighted as a significant issue on university campuses. Whilst campus security services are often touted as a response to these concerns, our findings offer a note of caution.
We heard from students who detailed being subject to misogyny from campus security officers, and others who reported being subject to “homophobic and transphobic slurs” – that is, security services were identified by some students as enactors of gender-based violence.
Relatedly, when some women students reported turning to security officers for support after having their drink spiked on campuses, they often encountered more harm particularly in the guise of victim blaming and/or having doubt cast on their experience.
All of this makes it unsurprising that women were less likely than men to feel that university security services keep students safe, and trans and non-binary students were even less likely still. Moreover, this lack of faith was even starker with regard to police, with just 7.7 per cent of trans and non-binary students suggesting police on campus keep students safe.
The areas of concern highlighted here, and others in the report, are often exacerbated by a complaints process that students regard to be deeply flawed and inadequate.
By writing this report, we invite universities to demonstrate their commitments to the interests and voices of students. We note, however, that the changes required will not be achieved through a few minor tweaks to the system. Instead, urgent, sweeping and radical transformation is needed, and students’ accounts can and should help to guide the way.