Universities may be moving online but precious few are investing to keep their students safe.
The internet is not a safe place for everyone. As students study remotely and conduct more of their lives online, they are exposed to more risks of harassment, abuse, racism , misogyny, transphobia, fraud, scamming, bullying and doxing.
Universities are un-prepared for supporting students (and staff) who are attacked online and the headlines are starting to mount up.
- “I told my university I was harassed online. They asked me what a hashtag was” https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/20/i-told-my-university-i-was-harassed-online-they-asked-me-what-a-hashtag-was
- ‘Inside the Warwick University rape chat scandal ‘https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48366835
Particularly when institutions are slow to respond.
- ‘Edinburgh University gym boss accused of sending abhorrent ‘rape’ WhatsApp message’ https://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/news/scottish-news/4164064/edinburgh-university-gym-ross-brain-rape-whatsapp/
There is reputational risk for student support services at universities in failing to engage with supporting our students. A worrying level of ignorance and low level of digital / social media skills amongst professional staff exacerbates this. Despite the duty of care accorded to UK universities to act reasonably in students’ best interests, to protect their well-being and to provide support as they continue in education there remains a lack of guidance to support good practice in safeguarding students, and very little focused on tackling sexual violence, hate crime and online harassment.
- ‘UK universities urged to do more to tackle online harassment: As new guidance is issued, experts says less than a quarter have adequate procedures’ https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/sep/02/uk-universities-urged-to-do-more-to-tackle-online-harassment
We must bring together guidance and training to support the development and effective implementation of a digital safety network and strategy, providing online safeguarding advice, support and training for students and staff, and drawing upon best practice from within and outwith the University, we must self-review our online safeguarding.
With a rise in cyber bullying and socially engineered threats many staff and students are not aware of the vulnerabilities of their own systems or best practice in safeguarding oneself and others online.
There are guidelines from UUK , OFS and from JISC
Colleges and universities can prevent access to illegal, harmful or inappropriate websites with filtering software, but this may not protect staff and students who access the internet from home or mobile networks – especially if using their own devices. This is particularly concerning for institutions with a cohort under 18, for which web filtering is an Ofsted requirement under safeguarding guidelines.
When users are logging in from home – and particularly where an institution makes significant use of cloud services, as at UoE ,policies and guidance need to be amended to refer specifically to any use of institutional systems or for institutional purposes, such as accessing collaboration tools like Teams and Zoom, and to harassment and bullying which happens online between known or anonymous parties.
Universities win awards and plaudits for the recent improvements to the student experience and student support services, however the support for students online is still lacking, with numerous reports of students being passed for one support to another and a then being left to sort it out themselves or engage with their harasser alone.
It’s time to do something.