Student spikings: universities told to step up prevention efforts

Wave of reported injection assaults in nightclubs and bars raises questions over level of responsibility that lies with institutions

November 4, 2021
Protest for 'End Spiking Now' following recent incidents in Manchester. 7pm at St Peter's Square. 27 10 2021
Source: Vincent Cole/Manchester Evening News
Call to action: ‘universities have a big responsibility here, but it’s largely being left to individual good intentions’

Undergraduates are the lifeblood of nightclubs and bars in many towns and cities across the UK, but on one night at the end of last month, thousands of female students across the country stayed away. They were protesting against a wave of spikings in which it was not women’s drinks but rather women themselves who were reportedly injected with drugs.

Although the incidents happened off-campus, they have been targeted at students, raising questions about the role universities should play in addressing the problem and about their responsibilities when students are the victims of crimes in city centres.

Nicole Westmarland, director of Durham University’s Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, said universities “need to acknowledge that there is a strong likelihood that in some cases the perpetrators are students”.

“If [universities] are putting out messaging around this aimed at victims – what they should look out for, what they shouldn’t do, etc – then they should be doing the same with perpetrators,” she said. “They need to have messages around what they will do to stop this and the severe punishments for any students found to be perpetrators.”

Advice to students to cover their drinks when they are out, for example, was “just a sticking plaster” and placed too much blame on victims, Professor Westmarland said. “Universities need to be more creative and put themselves in the students’ position. What would they want for their daughter or son if they were dealing with something like this?”

Anna Bull, co-director of The 1752 Group, which works to end sexual misconduct in higher education, agreed that universities needed to make more effort around prevention. She pointed to a recent survey of male students by researchers at the University of Kent that found that one in nine participants reported having committed at least one sexually aggressive act in the past 24 months.

Dr Bull, a lecturer in education and social justice at the University of York, said that while some institutions had improved how they supported students who had suffered sexual harassment or violence, there had been little progress on prevention work. “That’s largely being left to students’ unions,” she said.

One problem was the lack of clarity about a university’s legal duty of care in relation to off-campus incidents, Dr Bull said. “It’s a grey area, and institutions aren’t being incentivised to implement systematic and evidence-based prevention programmes, such as compulsory bystander training or work challenging gender norms,” she explained.

Dr Bull said that while England’s regulator had recently published a “statement of expectations” about how institutions should deal with harassment and sexual misconduct complaints, it had not made prevention work, for example, a statutory duty for universities.

“Universities have a big responsibility here, but it’s largely being left to individual good intentions,” she said.

Emma Williamson, reader in gender-based violence at the University of Bristol, agreed that the conversation needed to be better centred around prevention, but cautioned about expanding expectations of universities’ “duty of care”.

Very often, the task of supporting students who have experienced sexual harassment and violence falls to tutors, but that is not the best way of dealing with the problem, she explained, because no matter how much staff might want to help, they might lack the necessary training or resources.

“It is also a wider social issue. While it may be targeted at places where students might go on a night out, it is also a problem for all young people,” Dr Williamson said.

Universities needed to establish links with local specialist sexual violence support services, she continued, warning that the big problem was that “we know what works; it’s just that it’s not been funded properly”.

“If you have proper perpetrator programmes that are embedded into curricula, that starts to change cultures around entitlement,” Dr Williamson said.

Helen Mott, a research consultant specialising in sexual harassment and violence against women, agreed that local relationships were vital, emphasising the role of “joined-up thinking” between universities, late-night venues and specialists in violence against women.

Too many prevention programmes were piloted without being adopted as part of a university-wide approach, or they remained voluntary, meaning that those who were most likely to perpetrate sexual violence did not attend, she said.

Dr Mott said she was “tired of people passing the buck”, highlighting that universities were well placed to deliver prevention programmes to large populations of young men and to conduct community-level prevention campaigns.

“They ought to be embracing the opportunity and throwing themselves into it with enthusiasm. But I’m very sad to say that, currently, they are not,” Dr Mott said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Do more to prevent student spikings, universities told

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Reader's comments (2)

Did the sensationalist reporting and parliament time inspire copy-cats?
Off University premises students (18+) are legally independent adults, whilst their University or rather their Universities Police liaison officers should be providing information about known risks in the area their University cannot 'protect' them directly. Hard as that may sound that's the legal situation, for how many years have we been told by students to butt out of their 'private' lives?

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