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May 3, 2022


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Education security

Top trends in the university security sector

AUCSO Chief Operating Officer, Julie Barker talks about the latest threats and challenges members are tackling in the university security industry at the moment … And the common denominator is that it’s becoming more and more about protecting people, and not just buildings!

AUCSO (The Association of University Chief Security Officers) is the leading organisation for security professionals working in higher and further education around the world.

There are some key challenges facing universities in today’s fast-changing world and new threats are entering the sector every day. For example, the advance of tech and massive increase in cyber-crime across the globe are just two components, which are impacting on students and universities and set to feature centre stage in months to come.


1) Terrorism

Terrorism remains a real threat and universities will be keeping their security arrangements under regular review, especially with the pending changes to the UK CONTEST strategy. This includes the Protect Duty, which is likely to become enshrined in legislation in due course.

Universities will need to plan now to revise their security arrangements to mitigate the risk of a terrorist attack, as it is probable that many sites will fall within the parameters of ‘Publicly Accessible Locations’.

To ensure universities evolve at a pace that will be necessary to meet the Protect Duty, there will be a need for forward financial planning. This is not only in terms of physical resources and operational effectiveness but also in the use of technology to support university’ communities, assets, and reputation.

The expected introduction and implementation of the requirements of this law will inevitably be a challenge for university security services. Members across the UK are concerned about the financial, and indeed the resource implication, so this will necessitate careful consideration.

Read: What does the Protect Duty mean for the security industry?

2) Changing role of security services teams

We have seen, and are continuing to see, a change in the nature of the role of security teams in universities as they become more involved in dealing with the mental health of staff, students, and visitors to our institutions. There’s a fundamental shift from looking after buildings to looking after people.

In order for security teams to achieve this fundamental shift in their role, there will need to be some significant re-modelling of operational practices, new collaborations with other departments and enhanced training and upskilling of security officers. Universities will also need to re-evaluate the resources available to support such an ambitious transition and shift in emphasis.

Security teams are more often than not the first on the scene in the event of an incident on campus and are having to deal with a growing number of incidents involving mental health, self-harm and drugs issues. This is important when we consider their role, and if indeed the service provides 24/7 cover. There’s no such thing as ‘normal’ business hours when it comes to mental health and drug issues, and there’s a growing need to ensure 24/7 cover, where this is not already in place.

Looking after the mental health and wellbeing of our staff, students and visitors is a 24hr challenge and we, in security, need to be ready to address it in whatever guise it presents itself. Nowhere is this highlighted more strongly than in the limitations of our emergency services in regards both resources and response times.

There are also many moral dilemmas to consider when working in Higher Education, with regards to acting in the best interests of the student. For example, travelling in the ambulance with the student to hospital, the issues around restraining a student (and whether this should be videoed), moving a student into alternative accommodation against their will, and many other situations which security teams are increasingly faced with.

If a student needs to go to hospital, there are then considerations around how they are discharged, as they may well be physically fit – but not mentally fit. Does the university accept the NHS discharge, how do we support a student in those circumstances, or are we not able to provide the required support? When a student is discharged from hospital, how often do we check on that student? And if something happens when we leave – are we responsible?

Alongside the insurance and legal risks of such incidents we also need to consider the impact on those involved: the student, the teams involved, friends and flatmates, and parents and guardians.

We also need to look at how we proactively help educate our students around the worrying issues and concerns around drugs. Universities can be seen to have their heads in the sand on such issues and there is a tendency to ignore the issues rather than face them head on – the classic ‘Ostrich effect’.

Gender Based Violence (GBV) has also seen a sharp increase – some allegations of which are reported to the police, and some are not. We need to address why victims aren’t reporting to the police but instead only reporting incidents internally, and ensure we have robust processes in place to respond to such alleged incidents. This would necessitate collaborations with other internal services and support from various agencies.

3) Review of technology – The development of AI

University security technologies and cloud-based systems such as CCTV, access control, incident response systems and radio platforms all evolve at lightning pace. University security teams need to constantly review their technologies and ensure they are upgraded regularly to ensure the maximum benefit of the investment in these systems is utilised.

Security services need to keep a very close eye on the development of AI for use in CCTV systems. Traditionally university security CCTV systems are passive and only used after an event takes place. This needs to change into the proactive monitoring of CCTV networks to enhance operational practices, prevent crime and manage multiple incident capacity more effectively.

4) The return of extensive travel

The return of extensive travel around the globe for staff and students is welcomed after a lengthy period of not being able to travel, but with this comes some concern amongst members.

Incidents involving staff and or students outside of the UK bring with them complexities and the expectation for our teams to ensure staff and students are safe irrelevant of their location. If a critical incident occurs in a country where the university doesn’t have any local colleagues or partners that are trusted, there is an air of anxiety – maybe unnecessarily but without that local knowledge, or trusted agency there is nervousness.

UK universities attract significant numbers of international students and our reputation for student safety and security is paramount in continuing to attract internationally. Student experience has been a KPI for UK universities for several years. Our teams are at the forefront of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our students and therefor our teams are a crucial element of the student experience.

5) More collaboration within the sector

The university security sector is traditionally very insular and tends to operate in silo type environments. More collaboration is needed between our institutions, the sector, external agencies, statutory bodies and the wider security industry on a local, regional and national level as this will enable us to share best practice, provide mutual support, learn from the experiences of others, and improve professionalism across the whole sector.

At AUCSO we offer help and support across the sector in regards to these challenges, including sharing best practice and we enjoy the mutual support we receive from our partner institutions. Find out more about AUCSO. 

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