Leader: Universities must tackle security

April 16, 2004

Higher education students are (nearly) all over 18 and do not expect or want universities to stand in loco parentis . However, like any organisation, the university has a responsibility to maintain a safe environment. What goes on in nightclubs, or in private accommodation, is beyond the institution's control. But students - and staff - should not fear for their safety on campus or in halls of residence. If they do, the new higher education market may eventually take its toll on applications.

Universities such as Newcastle are already ploughing millions of pounds into upgraded facilities, aware that student choice is about more than the perceived quality of courses. Some of this investment must go into improved security if the anxieties exposed in the Sodexho/ Times Higher survey are to be addressed. Where outside firms are involved in the running of halls, the same expectations must be written into their contracts.

Worthwhile improvements will not be easy or cheap to bring about, especially for the many universities and colleges that border high-crime areas. Outside the campus universities of the 1960s, sites are often sprawling and ill-defined. The armies of security men needed for effective policing would be resented by students and are beyond the means of higher education budgets. But more can be done to lessen the risk of attacks, from the installation of better lighting and closed-circuit television to the provision of late-night bus services. Even beyond their premises, universities can put pressure on local authorities and police to take action in security blackspots.

Students and their unions must play their part as well. The survey suggests that while male students may be less nervous than their female counterparts, they have more to fear. They are prime targets for criminals and hooligans but are less likely to take sensible precautions. Heightened awareness of terrorism will steer universities towards tighter security, but students (many of whom are living in an unfamiliar environment) also have to adapt. Universities offer advice, but students are more likely to listen to their peers, which is why personal safety programmes such as the one launched by Edinburgh University Students' Association are so valuable.

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