Lecturers talk of students' 'shocking' abuse

Study suggests that 'consumer attitude' may be fuelling harassment. Rebecca Attwood reports

June 18, 2009

Lecturers have spoken out about the intimidation and abuse they face at the hands of their students.

The harassment ranges from instances of students offering sexual favours in return for good grades, to insults sent via email and verbal aggression.

As part of a research project exploring the problem of "upwards harassment", academics have talked about the difficult and upsetting situations they have encountered.

Sara White, senior lecturer in adult nursing at Bournemouth University, interviewed a dozen academics who had been harassed in schools of health and social care in post-92 universities in England. She described their accounts as "quite shocking".

Among other incidents, lecturers told of a student who threatened to "spread rumours" about a tutor if an essay was not passed, of being called "fucking boring" and of an undergraduate becoming aggressive because of unhappiness with a grade that was given.

All the academics interviewed said that swearing and verbal attacks by students were increasingly frequent. One academic said: "The F-word is commonplace now; being sworn at is common." A few academics said they had been subjected to sexual harassment.

"What came out very heavily was the feeling that students' attitudes had changed over the past five to ten years," Ms White said. "Lecturers felt that students saw themselves as customers and thought they should be treated differently."

Although bad behaviour was most likely to occur when students were approaching deadlines or exams, several interviewees linked incidents to the use of drugs and alcohol.

The study also describes the phenomenon of "electronic communication attack", when lecturers receive rude or abusive messages via phone or email.

"In some cases, the incidents were very upsetting for the academics and they did not know where to turn," said Ms White, who presented the findings of her research at a recent Society for Research into Higher Education event. "Some felt there was a perception that, because they were academics, they were expected to cope with anything that was thrown at them.

"I wondered whether senior academics would have more 'coping mechanisms' than those who were more junior, but some very senior academics had some quite horrifying stories.

"The research highlighted that upwards harassment caused academics to feel negative and potentially damaging, stressful emotions of anger, fear and guilt. This may be detrimental to health."

Ms White is calling for institutions to do more to recognise the problem and offer support.

She argued that universities should establish workshops for students to raise awareness of the problem and help prevent harassment in addition to offering training that would help staff deal with - and stop - unacceptable behaviour when it arose.

"Universities need to recognise that harassment by students is going on. We shouldn't just be sweeping it under the carpet," she said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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