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April 21, 2022


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Security lessons across the pond: What US and British universities are teaching each other

Having worked with universities throughout both the UK and United States, Darren Chalmers-Stevens, Managing Director for CriticalArc, outlines his thoughts on some of the key similarities and differences in security challenges across the pond for the higher education sector.

Darren Chalmers-Stevens, Managing Director for CriticalArc

With SafeZone now deployed by almost half the UK’s universities, I’ve been fortunate to work closely with many heads of safety & security, and directors of IT, student services, students, directors of estates and executive leadership.

More recently, I have been visiting and working with universities in the United States too, particularly over the last year. Although the US is obviously a bigger market, and local circumstances vary a lot from state to state, I’m already beginning to get a feel for the similarities between the two countries, as well as some differences.

I think each has something to teach the other, and there are common interests between the two.

Adoption of new security technology

In both the US and the UK, I see security and policing operations facing significant challenges, with questions over public confidence and how teams can best evolve to protect and serve everyone in their communities. I think there’s a shared willingness to embrace change – innovation is a characteristic I see in both countries – and I think there’s a sense of ambition too.

In the US historically there has been more willingness to invest in equipment and technology, with university police teams relatively well-resourced and well trained. The scale and ambition of operations is often impressive – for example, the major sporting events that require policing at US colleges dwarfs anything in the UK.

The UK has been coming from behind in terms of budgets and the deployment of certain technologies, but in some ways this is proving to be an advantage. Without the burden of legacy systems to deal with they have been free to adopt the new generation of unified security and safety management platforms. In the US, emergency blue phone and lone worker systems, for example, have often proved disappointing because they’ve struggled with effectiveness, user adoption and confidence.

UK universities have leapfrogged these siloed safety and security solutions and have had a much more positive experience. But American universities have been watching closely and some are starting to go down the same route, thanks to the information sharing links between the two countries, with networking through professional associations such as IACLEA in the US and AUCSO in the UK.

Attracting students and international appeal

One big challenge for both countries is how to respond to the increasing global competition when it comes to attracting and retaining students.

Higher education is big business. It’s strategically important, not just because of the economic contribution that student fees make to local and national economies, but because of the soft power benefits that come with having a global lead. We saw during the pandemic how important world-class research institutions are, not only to national economies but also to national security. Not just in science, but in all subjects and disciplines, it’s important to attract talented students because they will be drivers of future economic growth.

This is recognised both at a national government level and within elite institutions. I think proportionally there is slightly greater focus on this in the UK, where more universities have a higher intake of international students, and where for historic reasons strong education links still extend globally. British universities are very focused on attracting international students and a growing number – Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt is a stand-out example – are developing successful international campuses and partnerships.


But of course, the strength of the US economy and the draw of its tech industries, language and culture is a huge factor, and many American higher education institutions have a strong international focus too.

This has important implications for security and police departments. I’ve been asking security chiefs and their counterparts ‘where do you think US universities rank globally in terms of perceptions of safety and security against the top five countries that recruit international students?’ They usually guess number two or number three. When I tell them they are last (IDP report), they are always surprised. I tell them the UK also ranks poorly – or has done until recently: we are marginally in front and intend to climb that ladder.

As part of this improvement effort, closer attention is being paid to students’ mental wellbeing, which is a growing concern in both countries. There is now a widespread understanding that security and police departments have a huge opportunity to play a role in supporting students, as in most cases they are the only department operating 24/7. They are therefore in the best position to respond to emergencies and provide advice and mental health first-aid to individuals in crisis, and signpost them to the best place for further support. Officers also now have the technology to allow this, for the first time making it easy to provide a personalised service to individuals depending on who they are, where they are, and what time it is.

Rebranding the security department – communication is key

For university police departments in the US one potentially easy win is to change the way they present their service.

Some are already doing this, but on the whole police departments in the US are not communicating all that effectively with prospective parents and students. For example, most US departments I’ve spoken to are not included in the university prospectus. At open days they play a guardianship role and manage car parking, but they don’t have their own stalls or have ambassadors with promotional materials to engage with people.

I have seen how security departments are finding it helpful to rebrand, to put less emphasis on ‘security and enforcement’, and more on ‘security, safety and wellbeing’. They are finding ways – including new uniform styles, new logos, and more representative team compositions – to be more approachable, and to build useful connections with their protected communities.

For several reasons I believe those who are not doing this are missing an opportunity. First, it’s clear from surveys that many parents and students prioritise safety and security when they make decisions about the best places to study. Second, my experience has been that any policing team that’s good at community engagement is probably getting other important things right as well.

Where I’ve seen the biggest transformations in performance (as evidenced by student satisfaction surveys and improved recruitment and retention) it’s been where teams have switched focus from simply enforcement and crime prevention to building more connected relationships and greater trust with students.

That includes having the right people equipped with the right tools and technologies; building effective partnerships with internal and external stakeholders; and looking more critically at their established policies and procedures, including from the perspective of those they serve.

What about one of the biggest differences: the availability of guns in the US and greater risk of gun crime that officers must deal with. You might think that this would inhibit a ‘softer’ approach to policing, but from what I’ve seen at several universities I don’t think it has to. For example, it’s possible to have a balanced approach, with different officers having different functions, and not everyone armed. The general population on campus are there to be policed by consent, and they want to undertake their studies in a safe and welcoming environment.

For many demographics – including international students from countries that have a poor policing record – to feel safe, it’s important that they see authority figures who are approachable, and sympathetic, and not associated with perceived repression. Rightly or wrongly those negative associations have to be taken seriously if you want to build trust and partnership with the community around you.

Of course, to make this work, universities also need to have highly capable monitoring and response mechanisms that will allow the fastest intervention during a major incident. Whatever the emergency, getting the right officers to the right location in the shortest time, and coordinating response between officers as the incident unfolds, is vital.

And it is possible to do both.

Perhaps the thing I’m most excited about is seeing how university police and safety & security teams are keen to invest in the capabilities and extend the protection they offer to students and staff wherever they are – on campus, in the local area, working remotely, or on assignment internationally, which aligns well to CriticalArc’s vision of ‘safety everywhere’. There is a recognition that duty of care shouldn’t stop at the campus boundary, and that the best universities are working to safeguard their people 24/7 wherever they are.

By enabling this, directors of safety and security, as well as chiefs of police, are not just taking better care of their communities, they are aligning themselves with the success, profitability, and future growth of their institutions.

That’s a shared ambition on both sides of the pond.

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