Spiking is a horrific issue, which can have long-term impacts on someone’s mental and physical health, confidence, and ability to work and study.
Nobody should have to experience spiking, during their time at university or at any other time.
However, we know that students can be targeted, and the start of the last academic year was accompanied by a significant increase in reports of spiking.
Addressing the issue
We know spiking is a problem with impacts that go far wider than higher education, but universities can help be part of the solution. That’s why Universities UK has published a new practice note to support universities to respond to spiking as we go into the 2022-23 academic year.
This practice note was written by Professor Nicole Westmarland, Director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, with expert counsel from the Department for Education’s ministerial working group on spiking, which I am proud to chair.
Given the hugely detrimental impacts spiking can have, students from a range of backgrounds, including those with lived experience of spiking, were consulted in the development of the note, both as members of the ministerial working group and via a wider stakeholder sounding board. Members of the working group also consulted students to inform their contributions and to ensure we captured the actions that were important to them.
While we know that universities’ responses to spiking will differ according to factors such as their location, student demographics, size, and campus set-up, the practice note outlines four key principles, which we hope will be useful and relevant for all higher education providers.
Universities must understand the issue of spiking, which is much broader than often understood or commonly represented in the media. Spiking can take many different forms, anyone can be affected, and it isn’t always connected to sexual violence or assault. It’s important that we recognise this complexity and nuance, and reflect it in our response to the issue.
We should be unequivocal that the problem of spiking lies with the perpetrators. University communications should focus on deterring perpetrators and critically, give students information on how to respond if they, or a friend, may have been spiked.
To this end, we encourage universities to work with their students when developing any publicity campaigns on spiking, to ensure that the tone of their messaging is appropriate. For staff and student communications, it’s important to strike a balance between risking panic that may limit participation in student events, whilst giving essential information to help assist students and, ultimately, help to end spiking. Some good examples are included in the practice note, including from Middlesex University, whose students are currently developing a short campaign film.
Universities should also be clear on how students can report a potential spiking incident, as well as how they can access support. It should be clear to victims how any information they provide in reports will be used. How reporting is captured and subsequently supported is also important: for instance, spiking is not always accompanied by sexual violence, and so overly narrow reporting categorisations may put some victims off coming forward.
But no single organisation can tackle spiking alone. It is crucial that universities work in partnership with their student unions, local police force, healthcare providers, night-time economy businesses, and other specialist organisations (such as sexual violence charities) to develop a multi-agency response. Universities may also be able to feed their own anonymised data on spiking incidents into multi-agency data collection efforts, which could help establish a better understanding of the nature and prevalence of spiking in a particular local area.
I’ve always championed this kind of local partnership working at Exeter, which meant we could respond quickly and holistically to increased reports of spiking last autumn, through our Community Safety Partnership network. Our practice note also gives details of other successful examples of multi-agency working, such as in Bristol.
As we look to welcome our new and returning students, we know they will rightly be excited to spend time with friends and make the most of all the social opportunities on offer at their university and in their local towns and cities. I hope this practice note will be a useful tool to support universities in making university life safer, even more supportive, and enjoyable for everyone.