Internet safety experts say less than a quarter of UK universities have adequate procedures to deal with harmful or illegal online behaviour by students and staff, including the possession and sharing of child abuse images.
UUK, which represents higher education institutions, has recommended that universities clearly set out how they expect students and staff to behave online, such as in chat groups, and that they make reference to online harassment in disciplinary policies and procedures and their student code of conduct.
Prof Emma Bond, whose work on the issue at the University of Suffolk was highlighted as a model of good practice in the UUK guidance, said online harassment had reached a watershed moment with the first generation of students who grew up with smartphones entering higher education.
She said many universities failed to recognise the severity of the problem, particularly the issue of students possessing or sharing sexual images of under-18s, including selfies and photos or videos of their school peers, which could be classified as child abuse images.
“What students are not thinking about as they come to university and are now 18 or 19 is the legality of still having images of younger school peers in their cloud storage or on their devices,” Bond said.
“University policy and staff have not kept kept abreast of it at all. Very few – less than a quarter at most – have adequate procedures to deal with online harassment. It’s really ad hoc as to whether or not universities even record these incidents. Some have got policies, some haven’t. There’s no uniformity at all.”
In May a Guardian investigation revealed that hundreds of university students had been disciplined or expelled for making sexually explicit, homophobic or racist comments on social media.
The UUK guidance calls for a zero-tolerance approach to online harassment and for vice-chancellors and other senior managers to be held accountable for online safety. It recommends that staff receive specialist training from internet safety experts or the police, and that universities work with and better support victims of online harassment.
Prof Debra Humphris, the chair of Universities UK’s student policy network and vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, said: “Misuse of social media and other online platforms can leave students exposed to abuse, affecting their mental health and wellbeing, disrupting their education and potentially impacting on their future employability and career prospects.
“In order to tackle online harassment and cyberbullying, we must consider the specific threats it poses as part of our duty of care to all students. This needs to be acknowledged across institutions as part of strategic work to tackle violence, harassment and hate crime.”
Bond said Suffolk’s digital civility project had advised students on how they could get help from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which acts as a de facto watchdog for online child abuse in the UK, to safely remove potentially illegal content from their devices and storage and how to report the non-consensual sharing of sexual images of adults to the Revenge Porn Helpline. “We made sure all our staff had training on how to handle a disclosure of online sexual abuse,” she said.
An IWF spokeswoman said that over the past two years the charity had increasingly been approached by UK universities seeking to improve online safety for staff and students. “They’re concerned about preventing either the accidental or deliberate finding of child sexual abuse material on the internet, and consider that to be a crucial element of their cybersecurity and student welfare.”
The spokeswoman said the IWF was working with five UK universities – Sheffield Hallam, Nottingham Trend, Manchester Metropolitan, Surrey and Hertfordshire – to address this issue.
One of the women targeted by male Warwick University students in a Facebook “rape chat” group welcomed the UUK recommendations. Danielle, not her real name, said that in her case staff failed to understand the consequences of violent and sexual threats online.
“There was this attitude that you can’t be a victim because nothing happened to you in real life. There needs to be better training to ensure staff don’t have those misconceptions,” she said.
A Department for Education said: “Online harassment is unacceptable in any circumstance and can have a devastating impact on the victims. We expect universities to follow this guidance and put robust policies and procedures in place, including effective disciplinary processes and ensure that victims are supported.”