Donelan’s spiking working group advice is both on time, and yet too little too late

Back in May you will remember that the Department for Education (DfE) and the Home Office launched a working group dedicated to “tackling the number of spiking attacks against students”.

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan called for and convened the group, and Lisa Roberts, University of Exeter Vice Chancellor, was appointed to lead the working group and coordinate the sector’s response – with a commitment to report back with “plans for practical action to help keep students safe” before the start of the autumn term, and a request that every university introduce a policy on tackling spiking by the end of the year to “ensure victims are recognised and supported”.

31st August is cutting it fine – even finer than we used to see Covid guidance emerge during the pandemic – but we now have an output in the form of what has emerged as a Universities UK practice note to “support universities’ response to spiking”.

In some ways it contains exactly what you would expect it to – it calls on universities (without ever defining “who” it means in universities) to understand the problem, it suggests having clear reporting and support structures, it advises that universities frame the problem with perpetrators not victims, and says that they should work with others in a partnership-based, multi agency approach.

Of course if universities were really taking it seriously, starting with hours to go before Welcome Week would be daft – but we are where we are. Even if it’s late, is the advice any good?

Both the note and the press release state that spiking is a “crime” – which is arguably the first big issue with what’s presented here.

“Administering a substance with intent to stupefy or overpower the victim so that any person can engage in sexual activity with the victim” is a crime, as is “administering a poison with intent to endanger life/inflict Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)”. But is the “friend” that gets their date a double to try and be generous when they asked for a single likely to think of themselves as a criminal? Should they? Isn’t so-called “non-malicious spiking” a massive part of the problem here?

The original DfE note makes clear that the government is still considering the case for a specific criminal offence for spiking – and we should bear in mind that the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) told the Home Affairs Committee that the absence of a clear criminal offence presents a challenge in policing spiking.

The membership of the working group responsible for today’s publication is oddly not disclosed – but a few weeks ago we were passed a note that indicated that while it did include “a victim”, it didn’t include anyone from a students’ union on it. That, if it remains the case, feels like a huge missed opportunity to engage with those that were at the front line of the issue last autumn, and are at the front line of engaging in licensing issues, student safety and welcome weeks every autumn.

It could be that that sort of engagement would have highlighted that a good response is place-led rather than provider-led – how the note applies to a London club where there could be 5 different universities represented in the students attending is never mentioned. It might also have noted that students will often choose to socialise – especially in a cost of living crisis – in their own private spaces, which is where the research tells us that the bulk of spiking happens. Instead weirdly, home socialising is barely mentioned, and is framed only as something that might happen if venues don’t get their house in order.

Where venues are involved, licensing and the powers and duties of local authorities to require licensees to do things are barely mentioned – a problem given the Good Night In campaigners were all campaigning for safer venues last autumn. The dodgier ones aren’t going to get more responsible by magic, or even by an invite to a roundtable emanating from a UUK practice note. Universities ought to be calling for implementation of section 182 of the Licensing Act 2003 to include the prevention and reporting of gender-based violence in statements of local licensing policy, something never mentioned here despite lots of SUs campaigning for it around the country.

And while the note says that there has been consultation with those “with lived experience of spiking” we’re never really told what that means. Spiking is largely unconfirmed – that’s not to say we shouldn’t believe victims, but there was widespread hysteria last autumn, and when SUs did start to test students they found that only a small percentage of those coming forward had been spiked. So without an emphasis on increased testing – this all falls apart.

Ultimately, coming as it does in the same paradigm as all sorts of other advice to universities on student safety, it feels like a mixture of the obvious with a collection of steps that don’t really give students anything to rely on as a standard when it comes to prevention or accountability.

It’s not a surprise that the idea that all universities should have a “policy” – which would obviously make sense only in the context of providers each having a wider student safeguarding strategy, and contributing to a place-based night time economy strategy – is absent here, and as such this feels like a note to satisfy a minister rather than a genuine contribution to making students safer.

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