No one should have to suffer abuse in silence

March 16, 2007

Student misconduct and incivility can make campus life a misery. We must all help halt it, says Deborah Lee

"Students have walked past the front of my house shouting at me.. I don't like the idea of them knowing where I live...At the university, gangs of students walk behind me... They make cracks like: 'She hasn't been able to get a degree, so she's stuck in an office job.'"

Carol is a faculty administrator at a post-1992 university. We met while I was researching unacceptable student conduct towards academics for my book University Students Behaving Badly . Carol felt that she was targeted by students because "it's left to me to ask them to come in if they have to attend a disciplinary meeting, if they have been accused of plagiarism or something - it's my name that's on the letter... And if the office is closing, sometimes I have to say to students: 'You have to leave now.' They can be quite verbal".

Evidently, it is not just academics who suffer unacceptable student conduct. Anyone who deals with students is at risk - office staff, cleaners, wardens, security personnel, catering staff, careers officers, librarians, IT staff and so on. A survey by Unison in 2005 found that 12 per cent of 1,100 respondents working in higher education had been harassed by students. A third of these cases were racist.

And while Carol's fear of violent attack was palpable, my view is that we should not recognise unacceptable student conduct only when it is conventionally "serious" - the physical assaults, stalking and death threats that my research uncovered or the sexually explicit personal remarks found recently on social networking sites such as MySpace.

Instead, we must start to acknowledge more of the everyday incidents, the dripping tap of student incivility towards staff - in Carol's case, the "jokes" that weren't funny. Minor incidents can escalate into major problems. But even if they don't, they are still important because they contribute to a work environment where staff feel vulnerable.

Since I started researching unacceptable student conduct I've heard people say that this problem doesn't exist - or, if it does, there are only a few rare cases. And yet, when they start to think about it, most higher education staff can recall a variety of instances where, even if they have not encountered student violence, they have experienced student incivility.

The expectation that we're all always available to provide whatever support a student wants often gives rise to unreasonable demands - and frustration when those demands cannot be met. People often tell me their stories in private - after their public expressions of surprise about my research.

Several years ago (not at my current institution) students insisted that if staff "can't stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen". Does this explain why most people's initial reaction is to deny that they have ever encountered any problems? Do we minimise incidents as "just something that happens" and then forget them because we know that if we don't we will be accused of professional inadequacy? If so, we become a self-policing, docile workforce. How very convenient at a time when students seem to matter more than staff.

Occasionally, I receive e-mails from people telling me: "You probably won't believe me, but when I was a student I was sexually harassed by my tutor."

But I do believe it. Recognition of student mistreatment of staff does not eclipse staff mistreatment of students, or the bullying of staff by managers. Instead, it contributes to a picture of what's happening in higher education. That picture is bleak: no one, whatever their status, can be sure of being treated with dignity and respect by anyone else.

But so far, we've only scratched the surface of student conduct towards staff. We need to know much more about the extent and dynamics of problems as experienced by all categories of employees. To that end, today sees the launch of the National Student Conduct Survey, a confidential online questionnaire funded by the Universities Personnel Association with the intention of helping develop personnel practice in this area.

The survey, which will be available until April 20, can be accessed at http:///ess.ntu.ac.uk/surveys/student.htm  or www.upa.ac.uk . You can complete a very short questionnaire that asks you what student incidents you've experienced and how you feel about them; or, if you have an experience with students that you would like to record in detail, you can participate in a longer questionnaire. You don't need to give your name or place of work. Your contribution may help change how student conduct towards staff is perceived in UK higher education.

Deborah Lee is senior lecturer in sociology at Nottingham Trent University and author of University Students Behaving Badly , published by Trentham, £17.99.

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