Lecturers pilloried online

March 2, 2007

Students are using social networking websites to pan universities and lecturers, say Phil Baty and Amy Binns.

Academics are increasingly being singled out for abuse and harassment by their own students on the web, an investigation by The Times Higher has found.

On hugely popular social networking websites, with potential international audiences of millions, lecturers have been attacked as "useless" and have been subjected to personal insults over their professionalism and appearance, as well as to sexually explicit abuse. One lecturer is branded a "waste-of-space bitch".

The investigation also found numerous examples of lecturers being filmed during lectures and seminars, and the results broadcast on the website YouTube. Video footage includes images of students sleeping in lectures, rubbishing lecturers' arguments and engaging in disruptive stunts, such as streaking.

Sally Hunt, the joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said she was "appalled" by the findings.

"Universities must do more to ensure that staff and students are able to work in a tolerant and intimidation-free environment. The growth of the web means employers and unions need to revisit existing dignity-at-work procedures to ensure they cover all aspects of bullying."

Roger Kline, UCU head of employment, said he would immediately seek to work with the National Union of Students to help tackle this "worrying development". He added: "This sort of behaviour is clearly harassment. It is extremely upsetting for lecturers to be pilloried in this way."

In recent weeks, Huddersfield University has discovered three separate cases of abuse of female lecturers on the website MySpace. This included comments about a lecturer's hairy legs and smelly feet and speculation about an academic's sex life.

A video of one lecturer from Essex University, whom The Times Higher agreed not to name to avoid adding to his distress, had been viewed by almost 800 people. It shows him repeatedly scratching his crotch, criticises his personal hygiene and describes the lecture as "rubbish".

Essex said that the abuse of one of its lecturers was "regrettable" but added that such sites included many positive depictions of the university.

Bryan Lowes, a senior lecturer at Bradford University, who is named in association with a video of a student asleep in his lecture, said: "We are all still learning about the opportunities and pitfalls that technology brings to the lecture theatre."

A spokesman for the University of Central Lancashire, which is named in a series of videos of students sleeping in lectures, said: "If the university felt that these sites were compromising the academic reputation of the university or putting staff at risk in any way we would consider taking action to minimise the use of mobile phones during lectures."

Universities UK said: "Students and staff will no doubt laugh off much of this as long as the line is not crossed into offensive and defamatory material."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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