Reflections on bullying in Higher Education

During Anti-bullying week a quick web-search revealed that there was much focus and activity on this issue in primary and secondary schools, yet very little on the websites of universities and colleges of higher education. So how much do universities and HE colleges focus on bullying? And as a personal tutor, how can you identify, help highlight and support bullying of students (and regrettable of staff) within your institution?

Research shows that students at all levels of education get bullied. Sometimes a lot. Longer term effects of earlier bullying can be very negative on the self-esteem and self-worth of students, and be re-experienced and reinforced in their higher education student experience. This may well contribute to students leaving, or have a deleterious effect on their studies and academic achievement. Earlier bullying experience tends to stop students speaking up about their own bullied experience. So what to be aware of, what to look out for?

Students who are bullied may:

  • feel disconnected from university and not want to attend or even quit
  • have lower academic outcomes, including lower attendance
  • lack quality friendships
  • display high levels of emotion that indicate vulnerability and low levels of resilience
  • avoid conflict and be socially withdrawn
  • have low self-esteem
  • become depressed, anxious and lonely
  • have nightmares
  • feel wary or suspicious of others
  • in extreme cases, have a higher risk of self-harm and/or suicide.

Bullying behaviour can be very subtle, it can be most blatant and visible. It can be: physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, online /cyber, indirect. Banter becomes bullying:

  • when it is intended to insult and humiliate the other person
  • if it becomes regular and persistent
  • and, even after they have asked someone to stop, it continues.

Some well written resources for Students also giving a wider useful context:

Other advice and resources on bullying are very much schools-based, but may have some relevance, be thought-provoking for university and college staff involved in personal tutoring:

Students from particular backgrounds or with certain characteristics are much more likely to be bullied. One example. A 2016 survey, Pride and Prejudice in Education, by The Forum, UCU, Learning and Work Institute, NUS and Equality Challenge Unit found that Gay/lesbian (13 per cent) and non-binary (16 per cent) learner respondents were more than twice as likely than average (6 per cent) to say that they had considered leaving their education because of the way they were treated, for example because they had been bullied, harassed or discriminated against. 60% of respondents had witnessed a learner acting negatively towards people and 51% LGBTQ students had experienced homophobic or transphobic name-calling. Name calling and threats were the highest form of bullying. (Factor in that the existence and visibility of LGBT groups in educational institutions may well be fairly low - fewer than one in four learners were aware of an officially recognised support group in their place of learning.) interestingly, other research has shown that 70% of school pupils are more likely to intervene if they see someone being bullied after bullying awareness lessons/education/training.

Other research has revealed that students described as disadvantaged, as marginalised, or as falling within the widening participation cohort, e.g. disabled students, BAME students, care experienced students are more likely to be bullied than your typical student. Interestingly the week before Anti-bullying week students form particular locales or regions, “northern” students experience recently described truly shocking, serious and sustained bullying and serious harassment. Interesting comments here. And here for sector comments. Remember Durham students’ experiences. And of course, regional or rural accents across the countries more widely might engender bullying behaviour. See once more.

So, with national Anti-bullying week over, without much visible attention being paid to bullying experienced by university students what are universities and colleges doing? All HE providers clearly have anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies and guides usually signposting bullied students for help to student services support. Here are a few, (sort of random), but interesting illustrative examples:

For a more comprehensive and current analysis of Student and Anti-Bullying Policies in universities and colleges see the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management research article, ‘Student anti-bullying and harassment policies at UK universities’ by Emma D Harrison, Claire L Fox, and Julie A Hulme, published in May this year. This article provides the first analysis of all available UK university anti-bullying policies, summarising, comparing, and contrasting the content of policies acquired from university websites. The importance of anti-bullying policies is known from policy research in schools and workplaces but has previously not been investigated in Higher Education. Makes the important point that students should be involved in the development of interventions or policies, as co-created initiatives may be more influential and more effectual. University policy must be up-to-date, inclusive, comprehensive yet concise, and it must be publicised.

Though not directly addressed here, bullying and harassment of staff in HE and FE also takes place all too often, but your University and College Union has a ‘Bullying and Harassment Toolkit’ designed to cover this issue. Or if you are a UNISON member, ‘Bullying and Harrassment’. And, of course universities and colleges have their own bullying and harassment policies and protections for staff.

Anti-bullying week in 2020 was from the 16th to the 20th of November 2020.

Bullying goes on all the time.

Andrew Rawson, Director, Action on Access.

Action on Access is a primary national provider since 2002 of information, advice and guidance on access, participation, and student retention and success to leaders and practitioners in providers of higher education, challenging and supporting the sector to deliver and to embed access, widening participation and student success.

About the author

Andrew Rawson, Director, Action on Access.

Action on Access is a primary national provider since 2002 of information, advice and guidance on access, participation, and student retention and success to leaders and practitioners in providers of higher education, challenging and supporting the sector to deliver and to embed access, widening participation and student success.

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