Campus security is a key issue

March 22, 1996

All of us in universities are ambivalent about safety and security on our campuses. We expect to be hermetically sealed against thieves, drug pushers and peeping toms but we resent any obvious security presence - card checks, limited access, alarm systems. We want our buildings to be fire proof and yet I have direct experienccs of people refusing to vacate a building during a regular fire practice evacuation because they had not finished their coffee.

Students obviously do not want an oppressive atmosphere of security which they see as interfering with their relaxation and civil liberties. On the other hand they demand instant action if their property is stolen or they feel threatened. One academic whose wallet was stolen from an unlocked room demanded an instant police presence (preferably at chief superintendent level) but refused point blank to keep his office locked as it would be an invasion of his academic freedom!

As the Association of University Chief Security Officers meet this week the inherent contradictions of their diffcult job will be obvious. How to respect the culture of a campus and deal with increasing fear and insecurity at the same time.

One's recollections as a student are affected by attitudes to security when young and carefree. As I saw it (in the swinging 1960s), the worst issues were the occasional theft from study bedrooms and the odd flasher in the bushes, perhaps a complaint or two about poor lighting. We did not want to see too many uniforms or too many restrictions. Perhaps most students feel the same today. But I do not think so.

People feel much less secure at universities today. Campuses are potentially vulnerable to theft, vandalism and violence. There is increased violence at work generally and universities are not exempt. Atttacks by students on tutors and on "front line" non-teaching staffs are on the increase. Intruders, so many of whom seem to have slipped through our "Care in the Community" net, cause increased disruption, threats and bizarre misuse of property.

Certain security chiefs would know more about the problems than most of us. But do they receive adequate support from university authorities to carry out effective preventative measures? The experiences of non-teaching staff in many campuses is that practical security is one of the first areas for savings.

Cutbacks in support staff mean that the essential presence patrolling buildings and knowing who should and should not be on campus is not as obvious or effective as it should be. There is an increased use of private security firms on campus. They are cheaper because they usually pay poverty wages, but are they more effective and do they understand the nature of the university compared with the warehouse down the road? Although the quality of service of private security firms varies, all too many of them do not have adequate reference checks or training programmes. Those that have standards are undercut by less scrupulous companies playing on universities' need to choose the lowest priced quotation.

There is too wide a gap between the decision-makers who set standards and the front-line staff who have to clean up the mess. Although everyone on campus should take some responsibility for their own safety and security, it is essential that university authorities give these issues a much higher profile as part of their duty of care to both staff and students.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, a member of the national executive of Unison and of the TUC general council.

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