Just one third of students think that university security staff keep students safe on campus

A new report from the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) reveals that despite security staff being a common sight on university campuses, only one third (30.8%) of students surveyed agreed that they keep students safe on campus. The report follows a series of high-profile and controversial incidents involving campus security services and police and students at UK universities.

Students raised concerns about racial profiling and discrimination from campus security staff. Nearly three-quarters of students surveyed agreed that some people would be more likely the have encounters or issues with security staff than others, with 78.6% saying that race was a key factor, followed by gender (61.7%) and social class (54.8%).

Only 22.6% of students who identify as trans, non-binary or an ’other’ gender identity said that security services keep students safe and the report found cases of transphobic and misogynistic behaviour from security staff towards students.

Students reported instances of sexual violence, assault or drink spiking being dismissed or not believed by security staff. Sexual violence and drink spiking were important issues for students, and many felt that security staff did not treat them seriously enough. The report also highlighted some cases were security staff accused students of lying about being spiked, or blamed them for leaving drinks unattended.

In many universities, security staff are also the designated first responders to mental health incidents. Though there were cases where security staff were sensitive and supportive to students in crisis, there were many more where the response from individual security staff was inadequate or insensitive, sometimes even making the problem worse.

Security staff have wide-ranging and often conflicting responsibilities, and the report raises serious questions about whether they are best positioned to fulfil this role. One student remembered being intimidated and scared during a mental health crisis when she was escorted back to her student accommodation by security staff in ’police-type uniform’. Others noted that security staff arrived quickly but clearly had little or no training in dealing with mental health emergencies.

Commenting on the report, Nehaal Bajwa, NUS Vice President for Liberation and Equality said:

Growing security and police presence on campuses is not new, with more private security, card barriers, the hostile environment, and the Prevent duty operating at universities (and even colleges). During the pandemic, the number of police and security patrolling campus, with more powers than before, shot up. As this report finds, this increased racial profiling and harassment, and severely impacted students’ mental health. Increased police and security presence creates a culture of fear especially for Black, Muslim, and LGBTQ+ students; international students; students who are women; and student sex workers.

The securitisation of our campuses and accommodation, the increased digital and in-person surveillance of students, and the clampdown on student activism and protest, clearly does not correlate with students feeling safer on campus. Instead, these practices further isolate students and deter them from seeking support when incidents occur.

Educational institutions should foster a culture of learning and compassion for their students. It is particularly telling that some institutions spend many millions more on security than on student counselling and mental health services. ’Student discipline’ services that are serious about student wellbeing should centre support for those who are reporting harm, and Universities should work with their students’ unions to support strong student communities which can act as protective factors against harmful behaviours.
We are deeply concerned with the securitisation of our educational spaces; whether it’s police in schools - or campus security services, there is a creeping extension of a surveillance and punitive culture in spaces that should invite young people to feel nurtured and cared for. This report also highlights the racialised nature of that experience and that alongside students with other protected characteristics, they are afforded the least protection and experience the most restriction.

Perhaps most shocking is that the budget allocations for campus security services were more than double that allowed for counselling and mental health services, this is such an extraordinary indictment of an education system that would rather exert control than exercise care for its student community.

Lead author of the report, Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, University of Manchester, said:

From the student protests in response to the treatment of Zac Adan, to NUS Liberation policy raising concerns about security services, and the formation of student activist groups such as Cops off Campus, it’s clear that the role of campus security needs much closer scrutiny. This report provides an evidence base and highlights a range of problems. The onus is now on institutions to respond and show that their commitments to equality are sincere and determined.

Second author, Dr Laura Connelly, University of Sheffield, said:

Universities seem to be necessitating that security services take on expanding roles, and yet students are unclear about whether campus security keep them safe. Some actually perceive security to be a direct threat to student safety, citing examples of racial profiling, transphobia, victim blaming in relation to gender-based violence, and the targeting of student activists. Despite these harms, university complaint processes are difficult to navigate, slow, and offer little recourse to accountability. We hope this report prompts action from universities, so that campuses become places where all students can feel safe.

Co-author, Dr Siobhan O’Neill, University of Kent, said:

The increasing securitisation of university campuses - both through security personnel and policing - is a concern not only for students but also for the wider communities in which universities are located. Our report found a number of interpersonal and institutional harms related to the practices and processes of security on campuses. including issues around racial profiling and racism. Universities, who have a duty of care to their students and who have made commitments to tackling inequalities, ought to pay due regard to the concerns raised in this report and address them with urgency.
follows a series of high-profile and controversial incidents involving campus security services and police and students at UK universities. It is the first piece of research to investigate students’ views on, and experiences with, security services and police on UK university campuses.

Authored by Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, Dr Laura Connelly, Dr Kerry Pimblott, Dr Siobhan O’Neill and Dr Harry Taylor, the report shows that students have a range of concerns about campus security services, as well as the police on campus.