Education: When fear stalks the campus: The danger of violent attack blights many students' lives. Julia Hagedorn looks into safety measures

Click to follow
FOR AN increasing number of students, fear of attack is the new face of undergraduate life. Take Jyoti Sigouin, for example, a final year textiles design student at Manchester Metropolitan University. She feels she cannot wander off alone to enjoy a night-time walk and escape the sometimes claustrophobic student life.

Although she is an independent 21-year-old, her student life has always been led in the company of others. 'I don't feel 100 per cent safe anywhere,' she says. 'I thought I would on the campus because there are a lot of students around, but then someone got mugged.'

Attacks on undergraduates are not counted separately, and such statistics would be unreliable anyway, because many assaults are only reported to best friends, and universities do not want that kind of publicity.

But student life is probably far less safe than many parents assume. When the Mancunion, Manchester University's newspaper, ran a report on two muggings at cash machines on the campus at the end of last term, other victims got in touch. It turned out there had been at least 15 attacks in a week.

The university has since set up a working group to look at campus safety. Jonny Whitehead, the student welfare officer, wants to discuss whether they can persuade banks to share the cost of security cameras along the stretch of shops near the university where cash machines are sited.

'Students seem to be looked on as easy pickings,' he said. 'They won't put up a fight, and they don't carry weapons like others in the city. We told students not to use the cashpoints in the dark. Then there were three attacks last term at four in the afternoon.'

Like many other universities, Manchester is spread out over a large area of the city. Halls of residence are sited away from the centre. These areas, like the cash machines, offer advantages to potential muggers, and universities cannot afford security guards to police them effectively. Victoria Park, where many of last term's muggings took place, has only one security guard for four halls of residence.

Sheffield University students encounter similar problems. Sara Whittaker, women's officer at the students' union, tells new students that some areas are more violent than others, but it is dangerous to think they are safe anywhere. 'It can happen in the middle of the day in a quiet street.' She encourages women to walk home in groups and says there is a high take-up of the student minibus at the beginning of the autumn term, before students get to know each other. The bus runs hourly from 9.30pm to 2.30am, and from 5.30pm for part of the winter term. It takes women to their doors within a five-mile radius and costs the students' union pounds 14,000 a year to run.

The union has built up a dossier of advice over the past five years which is frequently updated in the light of experience. Students are warned, for example, to shout 'fire' and not 'help' if attacked (this, apparently, is more likely to have an effect) and to carry rape alarms, which they are told to hold against an attacker's ear, where the noise will hurt most.

The union runs free self-defence classes, and in the past two years it has been tackling the contentious issue of date rape through leaflets and assertiveness classes. Ms Whittaker said: 'We must get away from the idea that rape only happens on the street.' Already a couple of women have managed to drive their attackers off this term; they put their success down to their assertiveness and self-defence training.

Universities on separate campuses have their own problems. At Sussex, students have to make the most of their social life on campus, because Brighton is a long way away and they feel safer where they are.

Students' rooms have chains and peepholes on the doors, and men have been given the ground floor accommodation. Residential advisers seek to stop frightening rumours circulating by giving out information on any attacks that occur. Students would like better lighting on the underpass they use to cross a busy road to get to the railway station - they can ring for an escort, but there is usually a long wait. To avoid making this journey in the dark, students are boycotting a recent extension of lecture hours after 7pm.

The campus at Nottingham University has a lake with public access, and reports of flashers are common. An off-campus rape recently led to all 1,500 first-year women being supplied with free screamer alarms of the kind recommended by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust: when dropped they continue to 'scream'.

Stuart King, vice-president of the students' union, says it has tightened up on the timetable of its free bus, which he admits used to be unreliable. It is now driven by student drivers.

It has become routine for student unions to run free buses to students' own doors - with varying efficiency - and pay for them from the block grants they receive from the universities. But there are fears that if membership of the National Union of Students becomes voluntary, such funding will dry up.

In Glasgow, a student representative council acts for the students and is given a grant to help with security measures. The council is launching two new minibuses during its February safety week, enabling it to cover all the halls of residence.

Several people have been attacked in stolen black cabs, so the Glasgow student council has obtained a guarantee from one company that it will provide women drivers, that all drivers will be registered, and that there will be

a maximum waiting time of 10 minutes.

Gillian Shirreffs, the student council president, said: 'Glasgow is no worse than any other big city. But halls of residence are at the end of leafy lanes off the main roads, and potential attackers know students are there and so lie in wait for them. We hear of such attacks every term.' In one hall of residence, men are less safe than women: access is through a park notorious for the highest incidence of male rape in Glasgow.

Is there an element of paranoia in these safety measures? Geraldine Shipton, counsellor at Sheffield University, said: 'Students are young, often away from their homes for the first time, without the support of their family. Any attack is serious. Some students may seem to get over it and then it will resurface years later; others are so traumatised that they leave university. The university takes the issue very seriously. If the students suggest measures to help, then we will take them.'