Making security a cause for concern

June 5, 1998

At the University of Kent at Canterbury, students have launched a campaign to prevent increased security measures on campus. For one student, Ellen Raphael of the Open Campus group, it has all gone too far. The heightened emphasis on personal safety has students jumping at their own shadows, the 20-year-old sociology student believes.

The security at UKC is indeed extensive - window locks, key cards, spy holes and door chains in the halls of residence, security guards and night porters who act as campus escorts in the colleges, a night-time minibus service, free rape alarms for students and ID cards that students are expected to carry at all times.

These myriad security measures are not unique to Kent. Over the past decade, universities and students' unions around Britain have been highly active in introducing measures to protect their students. Generally, two justifications are cited: to prevent students from being attacked; and to make students feel safer. The latter is the more compelling argument - but also the more flawed.

Short of locking students in rooms surrounded by armed guards, no number of safety measures can prevent all crimes from taking place. While there are attacks in society, students will always face some risk. But because there is no direct correlation between this risk and the students' fear of being attacked, it is often argued that fear itself prevents students from making the most of their time at university. Therefore, security measures such as spy holes and escort services are worth having simply because they make students feel safer.

It seems like common sense. A student feeling nervous about an attacker in the bushes will feel safer knowing there is a security guard walking by her side. But what this argument fails to address is the question of why students feel scared in the first place. For this, Ms Raphael points the finger at the security measures themselves; and she has a point.

The flipside of measures that aim to make students feel safer is that such measures often, deliberately or by default, provoke a heightened sense of danger in the student's mind. One highly-publicised recent scheme is the 'Walksafe' project pioneered at Newcastle University, which provides students wishing to walk home alone with two escorts - student volunteers linked by walkie-talkies to the local police. A poster advertising the Walksafe project is guaranteed to make students feel jumpy. Under the slogan WHO ARE YOU GOING TO MEET TONIGHT? there are four pictures - an ambulance, a police van, a shadowy figure in the background and two Walksafe volunteers. The message is quite clear there are hidden dangers out there, from which you must protect yourself. The plethora of security measures in halls of residence also cannot fail to heighten students' sense of anxiety about what might be out there. The most scared I ever felt at university was during the period I spent in a campus hall of residence in the final term of my second year. Why? Just because to walk past four security guards through two locked doors to your bedroom and to wake up in the morning facing a spy hole and a heavy door chain was a constant reminder of your vulnerability. These feelings were irrational. But then, fear is not always a rational emotion. The more you are reminded of a potential risk, the more scared you will be.

Everyone understands how stifling an emotion fear is. Fear stops you from doing things and stops you from enjoying new experiences. There is something very sad about an atmosphere that encourages students to be as cautious and fearful of the world outside as their grandparents. It is ironic that the very measures that should give them fewer grounds for worry only reinforce this aged outlook.

Jennie Bristow writes on issues of personal liberty.

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