Bullies in the common room

March 14, 1997

Today's pressures are increasing the incidence of victimisation, Alison Utley found. Bullying is widespread and sophisticated in higher education, new research has concluded.

More than a quarter of 70 respondents to a questionnaire at Middlesex University had been bullied, according to researcher Hedwig Petrie. "This did not surprise me as the anecdotal evidence is so strong and this university is no different to any other," she said.

"University bullying is on a different level. It is sophisticated. It often stems from political differences within a discipline. It is worsened by the fact that universities are strictly regulated and hierarchical," said Ms Petrie.

Earlier research at Staffordshire University found that 53 per cent of staff surveyed in l994 had been bullied.

Principal lecturer Vicky Merchant, who is chairing a conference on bullying in higher education at Central Lancashire University this week, says that during six years as CLU's harassment officer she was "overwhelmed" with complaints from victims of bullying.

This was not, she stresses, a reflection of how bad things had got at Central Lancashire. "Bullying is very widespread in universities. It is condoned and rewarded as a management style. It is a reflection of the pressures we are all working under."

Charlotte Rayner, a senior lecturer at Staffordshire University's business school, said: "I am surprised in academia how positivist our ideas of management have become. The emphasis is on how to be a successful manager without looking at how difficult people can be managed and what to do about managers who find it difficult to manage."

Rita Donaghy, permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, tackled bullying in her THES column in January. "If senior management are not openly committed to eliminating it, they become part of the problem," she wrote.

Ms Merchant agreed. "Most universities have a panel of unpaid advisers who deal with complaints of bullying. But most cases do not get reported. The procedures must not be complaints-driven. Universities have a duty to set up structures which prevent this sort of behaviour."

If they fail, she said, universities face the prospect of litigation for personal injury or unfair dismisal.

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