University responsibilities for online safeguarding are only recently becoming recognised across the sector, even though more general safeguarding responsibilities have been long established. The launch of the Universities UK (UUK) ‘Changing the Culture’ report in 2016 exposed the experiences of violence against women, hate crime and harassment affecting university students and called for further action to specifically tackle online harassment and hate crime.
The recent letter by the Higher Education Minister to University Vice Chancellors relating to student mental health and welfare was clear that the Government’s view is that institutional support for student wellbeing is “non-negotiable” and we anticipate the forthcoming Student Mental Health Charter will reiterate responsibilities for university’s duty of care related student safeguarding and subsequent impacts on their mental health. At the same time a number of high-profile media stories about student online behaviour and its impact upon the student body have started to show how poor response to online abuse by universities can have significant impact upon institutional reputation and place them at considerable legal risk.
In response to some of these concerns and building on the longstanding strengths the University of Suffolk have around online safeguarding, we were awarded funding from the Office for Students' Catalyst fund. We made use of this funding to explore in more detail how digital technology impacts upon student’s wellbeing and what works in terms of interventions by the University in supporting students.
As this project has come to an end we have spent the last couple of weeks travelling across the country to speak at conferences by the Office for Students and UUK about this work, and how the sector might become more proactive in online safeguarding.
A recent survey by Brook revealed that a quarter of women (26%) had been sent unwanted sexually explicit messages. By surveying students at the University of Suffolk, we saw similar responses. Approximately 50% of the students surveyed said they had experienced things such as unwanted contact online, treated unkindly and trolling. We also know that students are more likely to be exposed to unwanted online contact and harassment once they become students.
Worryingly, the majority said that they were unaware of where to get help and support if faced with these issues. From our own work, and something also highlighted by the Brook study (where only 3% of those surveyed said that they had reported online harassment), is that students are not aware of how to get help. This directly contradicts something we hear an awful lot from the sector – “Oh, schools have to deliver education on online safety so by the time they get to us they know all of this stuff”. Moreover, we hear the extremely unhelpful term “Digital Natives” used to suggest that those who happen to be born after a certain year have some innate ability to navigate the online world with no need for help and support. This is, of course, far from the truth.
The work at Suffolk adopted a holistic approach – a blend of awareness raising, staff training and listening to the student voice allowed us to understand the issues student face and to understand that in order to address online safeguarding effectively at universities, there is no quick solution. However, there can be “quick wins”, like ensuring staff are trained to handle disclosures and simple digital signage that plays short awareness raising videos outside of lecture theatres can start conversations that can continue in the classroom, even drawing in subject specific debates and issues. Moreover, sharing these videos and resources on social media allowed students to consume theme focused information about these issues in a bite sized and engaging format.
We also know from discussions with students that this harassment can be serious and have long term impacts on their wellbeing and attendance at University. One student told us they stopped attending university because their abuser would be in the same classes and they felt unsafe and exposed to further abuse. These are fundament issues affecting student attainment, attendance and employability. And we know that these issues potentially continue into the work place. We would argue that understanding digital rights and how to protect oneself, both practically and through legislation, is part of developing them as critical, socially engaged individuals ready for the workplace. Another reason, surely, that online safeguarding needs greater engagement from the sector and out students deserve support.
At Suffolk we ensured we made use of the partnerships already established to make sure that we weren’t reinventing the wheel. Working with organisations such as the Revenge Porn Helpline, the Internet Watch Foundation, and CIFAS, we could provide students with support from national organisations with track records of resolving online issues. This is far more effective than “in house” developments that rarely offer the same levels of support and always hit sustainability issues.
However, perhaps the most practical element to come out of the work was to provide a toolkit for other Universities to self-review their existing policy and practice around online safeguarding and to understand how they might improve. One thing that was clear from the work was that there remains a dearth of guidance in relation to current practice and regulation around online safety within the higher education sector. The toolkit was a response to this and we hope it will be used across the sector to provide more effective online safeguarding for students. Because it is clear we, as a sector, really do need to do more.
About the authors:
Emma Bond is Director of Research, Head of the Graduate School and a Professor of Socio-technical Research at the University of Suffolk
Andy Phippen is Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at the University of Plymouth and a Visiting Professor at the University of Suffolk.
Katie Tyrrell is a Research Associate and PhD researcher at the University of Suffolk.