The stalked, the humiliated and the YouTubed

August 17, 2007

It was brave of David Harker to speak about his ordeal at the hands of a female student stalker (page 2). Thankfully, it is not an experience most people working in academe will have shared. But there are lessons to be learnt from his frank reflections.

Stalking itself is a relatively small part of a bigger problem - the increased level of harassment and general incivility by students towards academic and non-academic staff.

Research by The Times Higher found that 1,000 incidents of violence towards staff have been logged by universities in the past five years. Unison calculates that 12 per cent of its members have been harassed by students. A third of those cases were racist. There have been suggestions that the problem is exaggerated. In the absence of detailed research on the problem in previous years, it is impossible to say categorically.

However, it is certainly the case that people and institutions are more aware about recording incidents of harassment, and it is reasonable to assume that as student numbers have expanded so have attendant problems.

In fact, many commentators believe that is precisely the problem: open the gates to an influx of half-educated oiks and it is unsurprising if general levels of vulgarity and coarseness rise - new Labour's soaring gross national product. Others argue that it is an inevitable byproduct of students enthroned and emboldened as customer kings: why should they bother to treat respectfully those whom they regard less as mentors and more as service providers? A few have even whispered that, of course, it's a terrible problem for the post-92s, but such behaviour is absent from the older type of university. (Naturally, they discount the possibility that many newer universities are far more diligent about identifying and dealing with student harassment than some of their more venerable peers.)

Whatever the reasons, they are, frankly, irrelevant to the relatively small numbers of staff who find themselves in David Harker's position or to the much larger cohort who find themselves "YouTubed" and humiliated in the latest online circus, as we reported earlier this year. What can be done for them?

Adoption of a national harassment policy is not the answer. All institutions have policies and codes explicitly guaranteeing respect for the individual and penalties for transgression. It is difficult to see what would be gained by superimposing a national guide. Although abuse will never be eradicated, two things can be done to help reduce the risk.

Part of the solution lies with universities. Having a code of conduct is one thing, making people aware of it - and acting upon it - is entirely different. Institutions must, at minimum, impress on students at the outset of their education that intimidating, abusive or discourteous behaviour towards staff will not be tolerated. Any breaches should be swiftly punished. In addition, they must proactively alert their staff to the support available, have systems in place to deal with the matter expeditiously and treat all cases equally. Dr Harker makes a good point: would he have been treated differently by his institution if he were a female lecturer being stalked by a male student?

But the other part of the equation lies with staff themselves. Dr Harker and his line manager tried to cope with a distressing situation without involving the wider university authorities for two years. It perhaps hints at an attitude widespread in higher education: that student harassment is part of the job and any admission of difficulty may betray weakness. That self defeating ordinance helps nobody but harassers, stalkers and bullies. It should be jettisoned.

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