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How far should “student safety” go? – A ‘Secret Life of Students’ Blog

16 September 2020

When we interviewed students earlier this year about their attitude towards safety, little did we know quite how relevant the findings would be. The interviews were part of a piece of research that covered both safety and community, and were informed by a broad literature review. Unfortunately the lockdown struck just as we were about to go out with a national survey, so we are left with some emerging findings that are yet to be fully validated. Nonetheless, they suggest some interesting areas of enquiry and a few ideas that may help us to provide a better experience for this year’s students.

The findings were organised using a framework proposed by a previous piece of research which split the drivers of student safety perception into:

  • Physical factors
  • Personal factors
  • Social factors

We found that physical factors – locks, lighting, CCTV and so on – were expected, and were unremarkable unless something went wrong. If safety measures were not present or failed, a student’s sense of safety could be shaken, and sometimes severely so. Students told us they wanted to be in a safe and even a protected environment, and felt that the university couldn’t do too much to ensure their safety.

Personal factors describe the past experiences and personality factors that affect a student’s appetite for risk. Students come to UK universities from all over the world, and we found that their home context could have a big impact on their sense of safety. Students from vibrant cities, or from countries less safe than the UK, could be complacent about their personal safety, whereas those from quieter and rural backgrounds tended to be more cautious. We also heard examples of previous life experiences colouring their sense of safety at university.

Social factors seemed to play a strong role in maintaining a sense of safety especially for students who felt that they weren’t typical. In our interviews and focus groups, most of the students we spoke to saw themselves as different from the norm, even those from a university with a very diverse student body. Safety was very closely linked to identity for many students. They described how they had gone about finding people who felt familiar or had similar values when they first arrived, which made them feel safe. Similarly, they would set their own boundaries and even reject friends who made them feel unsafe.

As we move into the new academic year, our findings suggest three ways in which students may respond to the COVID crisis, and how we can help them feel as safe as possible in their accommodation and on campus.

  1. COVID related safety measures are likely to become invisible after the first few days, but any breach or flaw in these measures could trigger strong safety fears.
  2. Students with previous negative experiences of COVID, underlying health conditions or even unrelated conditions such as anxiety, PTSD or phobias, are likely be more risk averse and anxious. The safety measures themselves could cause anxiety among some students.
  3. Many new students want to find friends who feel familiar or share their values and background in order to feel safe at university. How will we help them to do this effectively and quickly in a social distanced environment?

COVID represents a new threat to personal safety, but this doesn’t change the underlying dynamics that dictate a student’s feeling of safety. By responding to all aspects of safety – physical, personal and social aspects of safety – we can ensure that students have the best possible experience this challenging year.

This blog is a summarised version of a presentation given at Wonkhe‘s The Secret Life of Students conference, 17 September 2020.