What will a new working group on spiking achieve?

Further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan has announced a new working group dedicated to tackling spiking incidents against students.

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The press release says that “university students will be safer” as spiking is “set to be stamped out at universities”.

A group called for, and convened by, Michelle Donelan will bring together vice chancellors, police, campaigners, and victims to “produce plans for practical action” to help keep students safe, reporting back before the start of the autumn term.

Lisa Roberts, University of Exeter Vice Chancellor, has been appointed to lead the working group and will coordinate the higher education sector’s response.

Your guess is as mine as to why the focus of this is on students given that the Commons Home Affairs Committee in January heard testimony from a wide range of spiking victims, but it’s good to know that next time someone tries to spike me I can just let them know I’ve already graduated in order to prevent the attack.

Crucially, it’s not especially clear that the problem is more prevalent amongst university students than other social groups, even if it is it’s not clear why other young adults don’t get strategic action, and in any event it doesn’t affect students as students.

As someone who straddled the categories of “student” and “local” for five years, I’d say that on nights out with my local friends, there was less focus on getting explicit consent from the person being poured a drink than at the student parties I attended. Which is important when Stamp Out Spiking told ministers that the most common form of spiking is a non-malicious surplus of alcohol in drinks.

Maybe this is down to the consent and boundaries modules students take, or the campus discussions around these issues which often predate wider social consciousness. The statistic given at the Commons home affairs committee in January was that 81 per cent of recorded victims were students – but the operative word here is “recorded.”

Students are more likely to have their sudden intoxication noticed by others; they usually return to shared housing with housemates, or halls of residence with welfare officers. Students have access to free wellbeing services where they can talk about their suspicions with a trained practitioner. Students have campus liaison officers who may be able to support the student in reporting an incident. A member of the public who has been spiked may just go home, alone, and sleep it off. Maybe the numbers are indicating spiking is impacting students more because we are only really collecting the numbers off of students.

There’s a weird geography issue here, too. The release says that Donelan will ask every university to introduce a policy on tackling spiking by the end of the year to ensure victims are recognised and supported. But how would that work?

Unless ministers mistakenly believe that there are lots of SU bars and nightclubs left (there are not), why would there be three policies on spiking for the three HEIs across Canterbury? Will universities have to have a policy covering the licensed premises in all of their franchise partners? What on earth would this mean in London?

As someone pointed out on twitter today – if you are spiked in the capital, half of the people in the venue might be being “protected” by strategies on spiking from 10 – 20 different HEIs, and the other half won’t. What’s the point in a strategy if you can’t hold people to deliver on it meaningfully?

And then there’s the matter of who is doing the spiking. If Michelle Donelan wants spiking to be categorised as a crime, then why are we looking to universities – who can not prosecute, or even investigate, non-student perpetrators – to address it?

And where is the healthcare approach in any of this? A point I have made again and again is that if as many students who claim to be spiked, are being spiked – with unknown substances – they need accessible healthcare. If these students are not being spiked, then they are experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweaty palms, disorientation, confusion, and a raised pulse – they still need accessible healthcare.

Ironically, meriting almost no mention in the release are local authorities – who do have the power to hold those who operate licensed premises to standards and commitments on reducing crime, including sexual assault and harassment. Why would they not be the focus, but universities are? Is it because students don’t generally pay Council Tax and so anything to do with students in a locality is somehow the responsibility of universities?

As such what’s most dispiriting is that this is another example of the government taking an issue that concerns students as citizens and making it the responsibility of higher education providers to tackle. What is needed is a proper joined up approach, led on a place basis (ie by local authorities) that involves key night time economy stakeholders and the emergency services, in order to first map the prevalence of spiking (which DfE admits, is currently unknown) and then formulate an effective approach.

What is also needed is shared responsibility and collective community building, not isolated policies from a local university or two, the extent of whose influence will probably stretch as far as asking their SU to remove a club logo from a freshers’ pack flyer if the club doesn’t provide drinks toppers. Are we looking to virtue signal or do we actually want to protect students and those in the community from assault?

The level of nuance needed in understanding the culture around spiking might not give the government what it is seeking – an easily identifiable scapegoat for inaction, in this case, universities – but it might actually make headway into dealing with the issue at hand.

One response to “What will a new working group on spiking achieve?

  1. This is dangerous stuff for a range of reasons – first it seems to exist purely because of a personal encounter – not a great start.

    Then it goes onto to explain that nobody is aware of the size of the problem – so em.. how do you know if your measures are successful? Also drinking spiking is very clearly real but there is no agreement that spiking with needles exists.

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