Leader: Don't leave staff at the mercy of the abusive few

September 14, 2007

On the one hand, more than 80 per cent of students say they are satisfied with the teaching they have received at university, according to the National Student Survey. On the other, 25 per cent of staff who took part in Deborah Lee's research say they have been threatened by students in one way or another, and 40 per cent complain of rudeness and incivility.

The pictures of contemporary campus life painted by the two sets of statistics lack a certain consistency. Allowing for the obvious flaw in Dr Lee's survey - it was self-selecting and arguably of more interest to those who had been victims than those who had not - it amplifies an earlier Times Higher investigation that identified 1,000 reports of attacks by students on university staff in a five-year period. In the absence of longitudinal research on student conduct, it is difficult to determine if bad behaviour is on the increase.

Arguably, whether it is increasing or not is beside the point. More pertinently, we should be asking whether its nature has changed, whether any of it is justifiable and, assuming most of it isn't, what can be done about it.

Technology has given the abusive student access to an arsenal of irritants unavailable to previous generations. In the past, gossip and personal remarks had a limited range and shelf life, but now mobile phones and cameras allow a wider audience to share in and contribute to ritual embarrassment. Students pay more and demand more. That inevitably affects the "terms of trade" between the lecturer and the student.

But if the ways to display disrespect have increased, the excuses for it are still unpardonable. The recent claims of a student who sought to excuse the unflattering images he posted of his lecturer on YouTube by saying he was dissatisfied with his course are easily dismissed. There are plenty of official channels open to students to register their complaints. They do not have to resort to personal humiliation.

What are the universities supposed to do about it? Is it really their problem? Rudeness between adults, while reprehensible, is not the responsibility of the university to police - unless it strays into verbal abuse or intimidation. It does no harm to remind everyone in an institution that all must be treated with respect. But students, as universities are fond of pointing out to their parents, are adults and should be treated as such. Some of the complainants in Dr Lee's survey betray a lack of awareness of that fact.

Harassment, verbal abuse and violence are of a different order. As this paper has pointed out before, universities have a duty to make clear that such acts will not be tolerated. Popular websites should be alerted to abusive or libellous postings. Good conduct policies should be referred to regularly and publicised. Breaches should result in disciplinary measures.

It is neither fair nor responsible to expect staff to deal with such events on their own. One of the findings of The Times Higher 's report was the lack of consistency and frequency with which universities registered cases of abuse against their staff. Some appeared to bask in cloistered calm; others battled levels of infraction that would not have been out of place in a borstal. Incomplete statistics can give a very incomplete picture.

Equally inconsistent is the way abuse is handled. Some institutions have an exemplary record in dealing with it; others record it and ignore it. Systems should be transparent, consistent and effective.

Whatever the limitations of Dr Lee's survey, it is undeniable that universities have an obligation to protect staff from the unwarranted attentions of an abusive minority - and that many could do more. On the other hand, it would be unfortunate if every incivility were treated as abuse and every incident of loutish behaviour taken as further proof of inexorable moral decline.

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