Student safety should be a priority for all universities, but with 39% of universities not providing sexual misconduct training for staff, and only 29% of universities with a mental health and well-being strategy, this demonstrates there is need for improvement. Lucy Winrow from ProtectED discusses student safety and understanding ‘what works’, driving change in national standards in the HE sector and safeguarding the student experience.
Student safety and well-being issues have received considerable press coverage in recent years, but perhaps none more so than the levels of mental health and sexual violence among students. Investigations into both areas reveal some troubling results. The IPPR ‘Not by Degrees‘ report found a 210% rise in students leaving university early due to a mental health problem, and a recent national survey showed that 57% of female students and graduates have been sexually harassed, and 48% sexually assaulted.
Universities have been criticised for their lack of action: 39% provide no staff sexual misconduct training, and only 29% have an explicit mental health and well-being strategy. Universities UK’s recent report on progress made to address sexual misconduct, hate crime and harassment affecting students, also concludes that more needs to be done. The report states that senior leadership is vital to change, as is ensuring a consistent approach across the sector. Similarly, there have been renewed calls for a more joined-up approach to student mental health care.
A vehicle for change
So when will talk be converted into action? Should universities be compelled by law to meet minimum requirements regarding their policies and procedures to support and protect students? Or might compliance with minimum standards of practice be linked to research funding?
Evidence suggests there is some unwillingness among students to approach their university with a welfare issue: only 6% of those who experience sexual assault or harassment report it to their university, while more than half of students with a mental health condition choose not to disclose it. If universities want to create an environment where students feel able to seek support, their actions should not be the result of force or funding incentives, but of principled conviction — because it’s the right thing to do.
At present, practice in this critical area varies widely between institutions, and the sector lacks a cohesive evidence base from which to better understand ‘what works’. ProtectED is a university membership and accreditation scheme for student safety, security and well-being that is seeking to remedy this.
The ProtectED Code of Practice represents a conviction-based approach to addressing these issues and is the first national standard in student support and institutional security that universities can work towards. Recognising the importance of senior leadership in achieving meaningful change, a prerequisite of the ProtectED membership is that a university’s vice-chancellor signs up to the ProtectED principles.
Getting good practice into practice
ProtectED is the result of three years research and development by University of Salford academics, professional services staff, and the security experts K7 Compliance Ltd. The work was initiated in response to concerns over HE security standards. For example, despite the fact that full-time students are an at-risk group for muggings and violent crimes, only five UK universities currently meet the British Security Standard for CCTV security systems.
ProtectED researchers conducted a national student survey through the NUS, ran focus groups with university security managers, campus police officers and student support officers across the country. Researchers also undertook a comprehensive review of guidance materials relating to student welfare issues.
It became clear that universities play a critical role in student safety, security and well-being — one that does not end at campus boundaries but encompasses the wider student experience. The ProtectED Code of Practice was designed to reflect this with measures on: institutional security; student well-being and mental health; international students; student harassment and sexual assault; and the student night out. These measures are derived from published recommendations and good practice guidance, including the Universities UK Changing the Culture report.
The starting point for universities wishing to implement change within their policies, structures, processes and culture is through the ProtectED membership. Institutions then form a self-assessment team to work through the Code of Practice. The ProtectED accreditation process is rigorous and confidential — applications are first assessed by a peer-review panel of sector experts. The Panel’s recommendations inform a Verification Visit to the institution at which trained, independent ProtectED Approved Assessors ensure that all Code of Practice criteria are met before accreditation is awarded.
ProtectED accreditation not only enables prospective students to identify universities that prioritise student welfare, but also helps institutions work more efficiently. A joined-up approach to student support underpins ProtectED, and accredited universities must form a Safety and Wellbeing Partnership — a group comprised of individuals from across the university, and relevant external agencies (e.g. the police, NHS, charities, and local authority) that meet regularly to discuss student welfare issues and share ideas and information.
Operating in this way, universities can effectively target and deliver their finite resources, but such work also needs to be guided by a more reliable evidence base. ProtectED accreditation will collect data on student safety, security and well-being issues as well as Members’ practice. This will be anonymised and aggregated, allowing the membership community a more longitudinal understanding of what is happening across the sector and ‘what works’. This contrasts with intermittent surveys that offer a ‘dip sample’ view of the student experience. As new good practice is developed and identified, this will be used to update the ProtectED Code of Practice, ensuring that such initiatives are not ‘buried’ within an institution, but recognised, celebrated and shared.
To date, over fifty UK universities have expressed an interest in ProtectED. In March 2018, the University of Salford became the first institution to join the scheme and begin working towards accreditation. A further five universities are now in the process of becoming ProtectED Founder Members, leading work to drive up national standards in the HE sector and safeguard the student experience.