How to make campus a safer haven

August 15, 2003

Universities are using technology and traditional policing to boost security for staff and students. Lawrence Cohen reports

An agitated undergraduate approached Peter after waiting until the rest of the students had left the lecture theatre. He confronted the business studies lecturer about what he thought was an unfair essay mark.

Peter tried to reassure him, but the student became abusive and threatened to attack. The student eventually stormed out and, a month later, dropped out of university.

Peter did not report the incident, thinking there was little the university could do, but he says he was "extremely nervous walking around campus". "I was relieved when I heard he had dropped out of the course. Even now, I am still a little jumpy when students approach me to discuss something one on one."

Peter's experience is common, judging by a recent study of 20 academics for the Nuffield Foundation conducted by a Derby University researcher. The study found that lecturers have been verbally threatened and physically assaulted in classrooms, stalked around campus, sexually harassed via email and maliciously accused of poor teaching. One student even threatened to stab a lecturer.

Lecturers' union Natfhe says the findings exaggerate the threat of violence facing academics. Adrian Hicks, head of security at Bath University, concurs. He says he has had no reports of attacks on lecturers by students in ten years as a university security manager.

But Bernadette Duncan, operational services manager at City University, believes that students are becoming more aggressive to staff. A couple of cases of verbal abuse have been reported at City this year. She puts this down to a change in student attitudes towards academics. "The respect lecturers once had has started to dwindle," she says.

Part of the discrepancy between the Nuffield study and university accounts, particularly of physical abuse, may be due to underreporting. This is certainly the case with incidents against students. A 2002 survey of 315 students at seven East Midlands universities found that 60 per cent of all crimes against students go unreported.

Roy Smith, support services manager at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, reckons that students and staff may be reluctant to report crime for fear that they will not be taken seriously.

He trains his security staff in how not to scare people off from reporting a crime.

A growing number of universities are recognising the need to boost campus security and are incorporating into their grounds measures designed to deter crime. Verity Coyle, vice-president of the National Union of Students, says universities have learnt their lesson after many went through a period of planting shrubs everywhere. "They looked great in the prospectus, but they put students walking across campus in danger because they obscured pathways."

Other institutions are turning to high-tech security measures. The University of Sheffield is introducing electronic intercom help-points across all its sites to allow anybody in danger to call for help. These link students with security staff and are positioned by CCTV cameras. Brian Mole, security adviser at Sheffield and chair of the Association of University Chief Security Officers, says help-points help to reduce the fear of crime as much as to cut crime itself. "The fear of crime is often greater than the reality," he emphasises.

Cardiff University has gone a step further by providing escorts to accompany staff and students crossing campus on their own late at night.

Tony Oliver, head of security services at Cardiff, says: "If someone is afraid, we will dispatch security officers to accompany them on the walk and make sure that CCTV cameras are trained on them." Cardiff employs 65 security staff and has spent £2 million on a 100-camera surveillance system that covers all university sites and is linked to the local police station. Officers can thus view any incidents on CCTV and respond quickly.

The effort has been much praised by students.

Umist's Smith urges other universities in town and city centres to follow Cardiff's lead in teaming up with police to tackle crime, as both parties are often dealing with the same criminals. "Whatever the crime levels of the city centre, the university is directly affected," Smith says. "We have had enormous problems with vagrants, prostitutes and drug users nearby."

Umist shares information on crime and anti-social behaviour with police (soon it will also network its security cameras to Manchester's massive city-centre CCTV system). The exchange of criminal intelligence has already brought success. After a spate of muggings that targeted staff and students near one of its campuses, Umist worked with the police to establish a pattern to the crimes. "Within a few days, the man responsible for the muggings was arrested and got 14 years in prison," Smith says.

Some universities and police forces share manpower, too. A handful of universities have their campuses patrolled not just by university security staff but also by police officers, whom they hire to help deter crime, in particular burglaries.

Because of their growing use of information technology equipment, universities are attractive targets for burglars. In January, computer equipment worth more than £2,000 was stolen by thieves who entered the University of Reading's Bridges Hall campus through a ground-floor window.

The University of Coventry has secured its IT equipment with a range of measures designed to delay burglars. Computers are locked to workstations, IT suites are alarmed and access to the suites is controlled by ID cards.

"Our strategy is to lock down property of significant value long enough for us to respond to an alarm," says Norman Langford, protection manager at Coventry.

But an increasing number of academics work on laptop PCs, which are harder to secure than desktop PCs because of their portability. The International Data Corporation estimates that one in 14 laptops is stolen. Some universities provide academic staff with rucksacks to carry their laptops and lock devices.

Fitting laptops with asset-tracking devices has yet to catch on in universities, but it has already proved popular at further education colleges. A number of colleges have installed Computrace, a software program that tracks stolen PCs, on laptops. If a machine is stolen and later connected to the internet, the software automatically sends details of the serial number and internet address being used to the software's supplier, which can then direct police to the laptop's location.

Yet it is students living in private rented accommodation who are most at risk from burglary. According to the East Midlands study, students in private housing are twice as likely to be victims of burglary as those living in halls of residence, mainly because student flats are easier targets than campus accommodation.

Sheffield's two universities joined forces last year to protect student houses in vulnerable areas of the city. The front doors of student houses were fitted with five-pin mortice locks, while security gates with locks were installed at each end of alleyways running along the back of streets containing student housing. These security measures, funded by the government, have reduced crime on student housing by a third, police say.

University security managers acknowledge, however, that there is only so much that they can do to protect staff and students at university campuses.

The dramatically increased student intake over the past 15 years means that many universities have grown into towns within towns, making them harder to police. Moreover, many students today come from abroad and may be less aware of security risks. "It is very difficult to manage security in an open environment," Oliver reflects. "We cannot lock all the doors."

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