Staff endure threats, abuse and vendettas

September 14, 2007

Deborah Lee of Nottingham Trent University, the author of the National Student Conduct Survey, found disturbing tales of staff under stress and lacking support.

This survey, building on research I had been undertaking since 2002, was to be the first time all university staff could comment on the conduct of students.

We heard from staff who were delighted with student conduct. For instance, a marketing manager spoke glowingly of student helpers at open events, describing them as "our best ambassadors".

And there were staff reporting nothing but courtesy from students. That is just as it should be, but sadly this is not everyone's experience.

The National Student Conduct Survey, funded by the UPA, paints a grim picture of what staff at higher education institutions can face while simply trying to do their jobs.

A lecturer recounted how she had lived in fear of attack by a student. He had engaged in a vendetta against her after refusing to participate in a class she was teaching. On one occasion, he came to campus carrying an offensive weapon. She ended her questionnaire with a plea: "Please do all you can to stop staff feeling threatened at work."

Even less extreme everyday incidents are stressful. A lecturer spoke of "explicit rudeness" from students in lectures that made him feel like a "waste of space". Another remarked on how unrealistic expectations of support made her feel like a "never good enough mother".

The voices of non-academic staff are not always heard, but our survey reveals that they can suffer appalling treatment.

A careers assistant recalled how a student said that his time was "much more important than mine, so I should get him an interview with a careers adviser immediately". In another incident, a student said he was going to "hit someone if he didn't get an appointment".

A library manager who had experienced student "rudeness, aggression and low level physical threat" said: "After a bad incident I feel sick and worried about coming back to work."

A complaints officer explained how students disgruntled with their degree classifications had threatened to bomb the university. She noted that "a lot of the threats are idle ones" but "they do have an impact... as much as we put on a brave face, you can go home feeling really worried, and I hate the fact that the university doesn't recognise it".

Respondents to the National Student Conduct Survey were self-selecting, so we do not claim that the data represents how all students treat all staff in UK higher education. But it does show that staff employed in a variety of jobs encounter a range of problems with students.

Staff have spoken, now will universities listen?

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