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How Can Universities Better Safeguard Students Online?

Student safeguarding is a well-established responsibility for higher education in the UK but responsibilities for online safeguarding are only recently becoming recognised across the sector. Online harms are well acknowledged in the compulsory educational sector as exemplified by the Ofsted inspection framework (2018) and the Department for Education’s (2018) Keeping children safe in education statutory guidance for schools and colleges, do not cease when young people enter into late adolescence and early adulthood.

The launch of the Universities UK “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. However, in spite of a duty of care accorded to universities in the UK to act reasonably in students’ best interests, to protect their wellbeing and provide appropriate support, there has until very recently been a dearth of guidance in relation to current practice and regulation around online safety within the higher education sector. UUK launched their Tackling Online Harms and Promoting Online Welfare report in September 2019.

In the last few years the press have reported a number of high profile cases of online abuse, harmful and hateful content and risky online behaviour that has left the sector reeling. Many universities remain unsure of how best to support and protect victims of abuse, how to sanction offenders and how to manage the reputational risks to their institutions. It is clear that across the sector that there is little help and guidance available.

Furthermore, there are a number of inaccurate, unhelpful assumptions around student knowledge and awareness of online risks as they transition to higher education. Terms such as “digital natives” are extremely unhelpful, stereotyping a whole generation who are, in some inexplicable way, digitally aware simply as a result growing up in an increasingly digital society. Yet, stark digital divides remain across socio-economic, gender and geographic clusters and there is, in reality a considerable diversity in young people’s ability to use and their knowledge of the internet and their opportunities to access and interact online.

To help universities, a self-review tool developed by Prof Emma Bond and Prof Andy Phippen at the University of Suffolk as part of the Office for Students Catalyst funded programme has been designed to support good practice in safeguarding students. The self-review tool focuses on tackling sexual violence, hate crime and online harassment, and is designed for higher education institutions to self-review their online safeguarding practice and is available here.