Violent students terrorise staff

February 28, 2003

Lecturers are increasingly at risk of violent attack, intimidation or harassment from their students, according to research into higher education's "hidden problem" published exclusively by The THES today.

Research for the Nuffield Foundation has uncovered cases of lecturers being physically assaulted in lecture rooms, sexually harassed and stalked by their students.

The pilot study by Deborah Lee of Derby University, published in today's THES , uncovered disturbing cases of knives and even a gun being found in a hall of residence, and one instance of a student threatening to stab her lecturer.

Lecturers' union leaders this week said that the problem was growing as student numbers rose, staff-to-student ratios fell, and the pressure on students to succeed at university built up.

Andy Pike, a national official at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Higher education is now a precursor to earning more money, and students are under much more pressure. They are more likely to raise complaints as there is more at stake from their point of view."

Mr Pike said the instances ranged from students becoming obsessed with tutors through misplaced affection to "very malicious" campaigns of harassment and intimidation over results.

Grace (not her real name) is an arts lecturer in a Midlands new university.

She told The THES : "Confrontations over comments in tutorials and marks are not that unusual in my experience. But one of my students recently went a bit berserk. It can be incredibly intimidating having a student screaming, inches from your face, that you are a bastard and don't know what you are ****ing talking about because they don't like the mark they've been given."

Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said that while the intimidation of lecturers was "inexcusable", students were facing increasing pressures with tuition fees and mounting debts.

Natfhe claimed that when the problem did occur, universities were slow to act, endangering the wellbeing of lecturers, who could be forced into long-term sick leave or stress-related health problems. Mr Pike said the union was pursuing at least four cases in which action was being considered against universities for failure in their duty of care towards staff.

"Universities are very good at protecting their students from harassment from staff, but when it goes the other way there often isn't the experience or the procedures that human resources people can use to investigate and deal with it," Mr Pike said. "Staff feel the system is weighted against them and that the university will support the student."

Dr Lee, who interviewed 20 victims of student bullying after an appeal for witnesses in The THES , said that managers were often desperate to recruit and retain students. Losing just one student on some courses could make programmes unviable. This led to pressures to give the student the benefit of the doubt.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "If any university is tempted to turn a blind eye to this kind of harassment through a desire to retain students, it should think again."

David Warner, principal of Swansea Institute and an expert in higher education management and law, said he had seen staff reduced to tears and suffering serious illnesses as a result of malicious complaints and harassment from students.

But he said institutions were in an impossible situation. "Working out what the problem is is complex, but working out what the solution is makes the problem look simple," he said. He said universities found it particularly difficult when students made unfounded claims against a lecturer through official procedures.

"Harassment is not common, but there are always going to be one or two cases in every university each year," he said. "It rarely manifests itself in a physical attack - if it did it would be easier in some ways, as that is a criminal matter and you can hand it on to the police.

"But our business is the business of the mind, so they attack the mind, the status and reputation of staff using the official procedures. The vexatious attack is extremely difficult to deal with."

Dr Lee said that more research was needed in the area to establish the extent of the problem and to work out how to tackle it. "My intention now is to conduct a larger-scale survey to discover the prevalence of unacceptable student conduct," she said. "Most of the people I interviewed had never previously had the opportunity to discuss what had happened to them. This is very much a hidden problem."

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