Easy marks for criminal classes

Students are particularly vulnerable to crime, from 'bashing' to burglary. Stephen Pritchard reports
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The Independent Online
University provides a chance to live away from home, make new friends - and be burgled. According to students' unions across the country, criminals are turning to students for easy and relatively rich pickings.

Crime-related headlines feature frequently in campus newspapers and, anecdotally at least, students appear to be more vulnerable to crime than the rest of the population.

Home Office figures do not record the number of student victims; universities are understandably reluctant to publicise any information they do have.

But Endsleigh Insurance, which specialises in the student market, says students are particularly vulnerable. The company is seeing a shift from random attacks or "student bashing" to robberies.

Sean Regan, a spokesman for Endsleigh, believes student bashing is declining as students are seen as a less elitist crowd because of widening access to higher education.

But in the cities muggings are a growing threat, a development Mr Regan describes as "sinister". He adds : "In inner-city areas there is targeting of students, perhaps because of the view that they are not going to retaliate."

Manchester University is an exception among institutions in carrying out a survey into crime among its second-year students last year. The full results will be published this term.

Manchester has a reputation as a tough city that has witnessed violent incidents such as cash-point muggings of students. Students have been advised by the university authorities to leave cash cards at home unless they are intending to draw money out - a move that has angered credit card companies, which believe it is safer to keep credit cards on you.

The study found that, off campus, students were more at risk than in their home towns. Burglary was by far the most common crime, reported by 16 per cent of Manchester students in private accommodation and 12 per cent in halls of residence.

Student houses are notoriously insecure. They have multiple occupants and are unlikely to have the latest locks or security systems. Often they are in the less salubrious parts of town.

The number of offences taking place in halls is more surprising. Most were petty crimes, involving losses of pounds 10 or less. But it suggests that many students have a casual attitude to crime. Streetwise, a student guide published by Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University, warns students to take basic precautions, such as locking their room doors even if they are away for only a few minutes.

Most universities agree that students' age and inexperience make them vulnerable. There is also evidence that criminals home in on students and student houses. As Ed Burns, union president at Liverpool John Moores University, explains, they are an attractive target.

"In student housing, you have six stereos guaranteed, or a couple of computers," he says. "Some areas are a 'student city'. Criminals know when students go out, for example, on student nights. It is probably too easy for them." Long holidays and the fact that neighbours expect people to come and go from student houses at odd hours add to the attraction.

Most burglaries are opportunist. Violent attacks can have more complex causes. Muggings are rare, even in large cities, but harassment and assaults do happen. In Manchester's survey, 13 per cent of students reported threatening behaviour off-campus.

Assaults and muggings might be motivated by a view that students are a wealthy and privileged elite. In smaller towns with growing universities, such as Preston or Durham, an increase in student numbers has coincided with a decline in the areas' traditional employment, heightening resentment.

Local people usually welcome the students as good for the town. This view is not shared by the young unemployed. Somebody on full benefits has more money coming in than a student on a grant. But students are still predominantly middle class, and they have the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle (cars, stereos, computers, and, increasingly, mobile phones), which may cause jealousy. Often, they are simply not streetwise.

"We have seen a rise in students being targeted by criminals," says Peter Wright, students' union president at the University of Central Lancashire, at Preston. "They see it as the ideal opportunity to reap the benefits of students' inexperience."

Students also under-report crimes, says Mr Wright. Without formal complaints to support the belief that attacks are on the increase, it is harder to lobby the authorities to improve security. "Students, for some reason, think that is their lot and they can't do anything about it," he says. "That annoys me."

Universities can reduce crime, and especially the fear of crime, with better lighting, security patrols, and closed circuit TV cameras.

An alternative approach is to integrate students into the community. At Liverpool John Moores University, which experienced a number of attacks at one hall of residence last term, the students' union and the university arranged meetings with local residents, and matters seem to be improving.

At Southampton, the university has a programme to foster relations with local people. Peter Reader, who is responsible for community relations, says: "Our experience has been that friction is caused by remarkably few incidents. By talking openly about problems, some of them can be dealt with."