Universities are attempting to understand the increasingly complex needs of a diversifying student body.
Alongside this good work, they must proactively engage with the public to communicate its importance – and the evidence that supports it – or the narrative will be seized and controlled by bad-faith actors.
In February 2022, Universities UK, Unite Students, GuildHE, and Independent HE established a new taskforce with government departments, sector agencies, NUS, accommodation providers, charities and police, and student advisory panels. Chaired by Nic Beech, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, its work has been looking to reduce the harms of student drug consumption.
This followed a number of preventable drug-related student deaths in autumn 2020, reports that student drug use rose during the pandemic, and a rise in students with poor mental health – some of whom report using recreational drugs to manage it. The Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care also commissioned Dame Carol Black to chair an independent review of drugs and the harms they cause. The detailed report Black produced, published in two parts between 2021 and 2022, advocated a need for a support-centred approach when dealing with drug use. The UUK taskforce also committed its approach to being firmly based on evidence-led harm reduction.
A harm reduction approach acknowledges that the safest circumstance is one in which no one takes illicit drugs, but also acknowledges the evidence that punitive measures for drug possession and use deter those most vulnerable from seeking support – because of a fear of punishment. It is about providing open and direct information on reducing the risk of addiction, overdose, and other harmful consequences of drug-taking.
Black’s report was a pivotal piece of literature for the taskforce, Black spoke at the recent Universities UK hosted Drug and Alcohol Impact Awards, and Black sits on the taskforce as a special advisor. Her report contains 32 recommendations for change across various government departments and other organisations – such as universities – to improve the effectiveness of drug prevention and treatment, and is now being used to inform the government’s approach to drug use. The recommendations were formulated from 156 responses to a call for evidence, extensive stakeholder engagement with the drug treatment sector, the NHS, third-sector organisation, professional bodies, mutual aid groups, individuals with lived experience of drug use and addiction, and representatives from government departments.
These moves – from a range of sectors and professional bodies – indicate a society at large willing to address difficult and complex issues head-on with the care and nuance they require. Drug use, for many, is being acknowledged as closer to home than some previously thought – around the same time as the report, the House of Lords was examining recreational drug use among the middle classes.
Students’ unions had already widely adopted the harm reduction approach, and as I argued on the formation of the task force, its embrace by university leadership was encouraging, offering the prospect of a united and consistent approach that would offer support to students in trouble rather than demonise them. Students involved in supporting peers struggling with drug use would have welcomed Black’s observation that “[l]eaving peer mentors to do the work of professionals without training or pay is exploitative.”
Empty spaces get filled
The creation of the task force raised hopes that universities would find increased confidence to face the issue of drug consumption where they may have previously been concerned about the reputational risk of harm reduction initiatives. My view was that such a serious taskforce from such an established organisation carrying out a review with professionalism and rigour would give weight to harm reduction principles – which are often portrayed in the media as actively encouraging drug consumption.
So it’s an understatement to say I was disappointed to read the findings of a Times investigation this week that claimed universities are “softening” their policies and taking a “lenient” approach to student drug use. The report slyly conflates the tragic death of students with an introduction of harm reduction policies – a framing which the bereaved family members of these students have since condemned. Other aspects of the article were criticised by academics, experts, professional organisations, and think tanks working on drug policy.
Much of this is lifted from the standard culture wars playbook in which decolonisation is framed as an erasure of British history, or with dog-whistles around “radical” changes; initiatives around student sex work are framed as institutions “pimping” their students; inevitable and ongoing curriculum development is framed as “dumbing down” degrees – which are undertaken by students who will only use AI to complete their assessments anyway; gender equality is framed as intolerance (in fact, any EDI initiative is framed as some sort of authoritarian regime); international students are framed as cunning trickers bureaucratically smuggling in their family members by stealth; and, now, campuses are full of drug dealers who blend in seamlessly with the children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren of God-fearing Times readers.
But this stuff continues to shape the narrative about what’s going on in universities. And waiting for the media to lose interest hasn’t worked yet. It is enormously frustrating for university staff and students spending months of hard work, alongside academic experts and other stakeholders, on a difficult policy – free speech, sexual misconduct, sex worker safety, and drug-use harm reduction – only to be told that the university does not want to “announce” the new practice or change in policy. The reason is always that the media is watching and will skew the narrative. So, they stay quiet. And then the media skews the narrative anyway.
It is very easy to write reports like these off as bad faith exercises and instead focus efforts on the work at hand. But it’s all fuel for the wider narrative that questions the value and purpose of university study. As much as it is difficult to engage with annoying misrepresentations of what can be assumed to be self-evidently good sector work, sometimes it is necessary. Plus, people do need to understand why universities have adopted the approach they have.
I can’t comment on the extent to which the taskforce has anticipated these challenges or how it plans to respond – there will certainly be residual learning and expertise from work on harassment and sexual misconduct to draw on. But at an individual level there is a lesson to be drawn about the importance of being proactively public and transparent – especially in work that is tricky and which may run counter to popular opinion.
It is surprisingly easy to believe that Students for Sensible Drug Policy is a sinister organisation with “untraceable” amounts of money coming in that’s covertly and systematically placed “representatives” on university campuses up and down the country when one is unfamiliar with student societies, their membership fees, and how networks of chapters operate. It is also easy to believe that an external speaker has been intentionally de-platformed when you have no direct experience of the complexities of room bookings and event approvals and the fact that students’ unions can put on up to one thousand events a week and that there will always be human error.
It is equally easy to believe that “history is being erased” when you have not been seriously exposed to debates over academic freedom and how decolonising curricula can expand knowledge. It’s very easy to believe that universities are endorsing drug taking when the research around harm reduction that emerged from these institutions somehow never found its way to your desk. This is why we need to speak out about our work first.
There is no particular deep reason why students are further ahead of the public on any of this either – and their parents (a core demographic of Times readers) certainly also need to build trust and reassurance. Particularly in the case of sensitive topics in which trust needs to be built between universities and students, policies are only as good as the comms they come with.
In the cases of some of the students mentioned in The Times piece who had died of drug-related causes, they or their friends did not seek help from their universities over drug use – even when their universities followed harm reduction principles – because they were unaware that the university would seek to support, not penalise them. The perception of a punitive approach, arguably, was a contributing factor in their deaths. If universities are adopting a harm reduction approach to drug use – as they should – they also need to be clear with the public about why. And for that, we need to build a better outward-facing relationship.
There is a culture war and the attacks are only escalating. There’s no need to deploy the garrison, but the sector does need command of the heights.
All should be vocal about the essential role higher education plays – not only in the economy and society, in research, and in social progress – but in effectively supporting the students in its care. To bastardise Margaret Atwood, “[Culture] War is what happens when language fails.”