Grown-up bullies

The school playground is not the only place for systematic harassment. There appears to be an increase in bullying in academic life.
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In the playground, bullies were easy to spot. They were the boys who pinched your dinner money and kicked you in the shins if you told on them. Wind on a few years to further and higher education, and the bullies - and their victims - are harder to define. Students, female lecturers and postgraduate tutors may all be on the receiving end, but they may equally well be the perpetrators. Their tactics are unlikely to extend to daylight robbery, but may run the gamut from professional intimidation to unreasonable work load or demands on time.

For their institutions, the task is not just to identify the abusers and abused but to decide how to tackle a problem which, the evidence suggests, is increasing or, at the very least, becoming ever more apparent as awareness grows.

At the University of Central Lancashire tomorrow, staff from universities and colleges in Britain and overseas will gather to examine what can be done. The conference is the first to be held by the further and higher education branch of the National Harassment Network, a five-year-old group supporting organisations concerned with harassment at work.

Vicki Merchant, conference organiser, gauges the need for a fresh look at the issue by the growing proportion of callers to her harassment helpline who complain of bullying. The problem now takes up two-thirds of calls - a minimum of three a day, though the overall number stays roughly steady as complaints of sexual and racial harassment begin to decline.

But though the nature of harassment may be changing - a trend that is confirmed by individual universities - many institutions have yet to catch up. "Most have harassment policies that were originally written with laws against discrimination on race or sex in mind," says Vicki. "Workplace bullying is not specifically outlawed, and it is often inserted into policies and procedures as a `bolt-on' extra, but not defined in detail."

In some cases, as more than one equal opportunities officer suggests, universities preferred not to believe that such behaviour could rear its head within their ivory towers. But, as budgets tighten and competition for students grows, they are being forced to acknowledge unions' claims that rising pressure can create such tensions.

Though little research exists on university and college bullying, few disagree that its guises are many and varied. Often, the harassment involves a manager and a subordinate, and may see the senior staff member imposing unreasonable tasks or deadlines, publicly criticising the junior, or even taking credit for their work and ideas. Women may be on the receiving end, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of bullied people in senior positions may be on the increase.

In other cases, the behaviour occurs among equals. Whistle-blowers who expose academic, financial or other improprieties among colleagues may be ostracised in their department.

Meanwhile students, more often portrayed as victims of harassment by lecturers, have been known to bully the inexperienced and untrained postgraduates who are increasingly being employed by universities to supervise them.

The victims, universally, may suffer anything from sleepless nights to mental breakdown.

At Sheffield Hallam University, where 85 per cent of harassment cases reported by staff now involve bullying, policies and procedures are being rewritten to reflect the statistics. "Rather than look at individual forms of harassment, we are starting from the view that each is about abuse of power," says Catherine Annabel, a harassment officer. "The important thing is not to put things in pigeonholes, but to look at what is actually going wrong with the way people are treating each other."

Sheffield Hallam is also reviewing its investigation procedures, another aspect that Vicki Merchant believes most universities and colleges get wrong. Many use volunteer advisers with little or no training who may simply end up taking on the victim's burden themselves. Some institutions promise confidentiality, tying their own hands if a serious problem emerges.

Many universities are beginning to tweak harassment policies as awareness of bullying grows, and Oxford Brookes launched a full-scale project to review and amend its procedures. After an internal survey of staff and students revealed that many had experienced, but not reported, "low-level" harassment such as abusive language, the university's equal opportunities action group devised a new procedure, assuming a broad definition of harassment.

The mechanism, launched this term and widely publicised on campus, starts with a low-key but vigorous attempt to resolve the problem informally, using one of a large team of harassment advisers. Failure at this stage triggers a review to determine whether a case exists, followed by formal grievance procedures.

Liz White, an equal opportunities officer, believes that the involvement of all groups of staff and students in creating the policy will hold the key to its success. The real achievement, however, would be to create a working environment in universities where "the great diversity of people working higher in education could work constructively without fear of bullying".

Catherine Annabel agrees. "We are now looking at preventive strategies, such as improving management training and spreading the concept of the right to dignity for every employee, from cleaners to professors. The reality is that lists of unacceptable behaviour cannot be exhaustive - you are never going to sum up all the different ways people can be horrible to one another"

From teaching to stress to Prozac

Four years after he was bullied out of his job and career, Tim Hutchinson, a former lecturer, is still in therapy and believes he will never work again.

Though an ex-rugby player and university debater, he has lost all confidence, and takes pills to combat the stress which still causes him to "shake like a jelly".

The 48-year-old was appointed as a middle manager in a Midlands college in 1985, but after a successful start he saw one of his lecturers promoted over him when a new principal launched reorganisation.

His new boss was keen to establish his status, and pledged to treat any troublemaker like a naughty 14-year-old. Soon, Tim recalls, he had moved on to public humiliation in staff meetings and private grilling. "They were straight out of old gangster movies, complete with lights, desk and chair positions, body language and smoke blown into my face. But it was not funny. He fabricated stories, spread malicious rumours and set colleagues up to intimidate and report on me."

Tim's "posh accent" and use of "long words" - deemed by his boss to alienate students - were used as reasons for attack. He secured no help from senior managers - who had been won over by the fabricated allegations - and was soon moved "from teaching I could do to teaching I couldn't. It's a common trick to bring about, then prove, incompetence."

As his stress levels spiralled, Tim began to abuse pain-killers, sleeping pills and alcohol. Physical illness degenerated into mental breakdown, and he retired "to Prozac and therapy". Though he does not work, he now writes and campaigns on bullying issues.

In the case of his college, Tim believes, no anti-bullying procedure was operating at all, but his experiences have left him with little faith in any protection for victims but the force of law. Bullying, however, unlike discrimination by race, sex or disability, is not yet specifically outlawed, and those with grievances rely mainly on health and safety at work legislation. A Dignity at Work Bill intended to fill the gap has reached its latter parliamentary stages but may well be squeezed out before the general election.

"Universities and colleges will be wary of racial and sexual harassment so long as they know they could be crippled by stiff financial penalties," Tim says. "But as long as there are no penalties for non-specific harassment such as the bullying I have suffered, they have no reason to face up

to it"

Where to turn for help

Tim Field, Workplace Bullying Advice Line - 01235 834548.

Andrea Adams Trust, advice on workplace bullying. Write with SAE for worksheets to Lyn Witheridge, 24 Derek Avenue, Hove, East Sussex.

"Imperative", bullying helpline (weekdays 8pm-10pm) - 01983 856379.

Suzy Lamplugh Trust, advice on personal safety - 0181-392 1839.

Vicki Merchant, National Harassment Helpline - 01772 893398.

Local law centres provide free legal advice. Contact the Law Centres Federation on 0171-387 8570 (South) or 01142 787088 (Midlands and North).

How to beat the academic bully

Make an immediate note of the behaviour you find worrying or offensive, together with the time, date and any witnesses. If you delay, details could become vague or inaccurate. Explain in your note how you felt about the behaviour and its effect on you. You could post a copy of the information to yourself and keep it, unopened, to provide a dated record.

Update your record if the behaviour recurs.

If you feel able to speak to the perpetrator about it, explain that the action is upsetting you and you would like it to stop. Ask for their agreement. If they disagree, warn them that if the behaviour continues, you will make a formal complaint.

If you cannot confront the person direct, use the procedures within your university or college. There should be an informal stage, before a full grievance procedure is activated. Consider going to your union. Turn to somebody in authority, or a friend, rather than bottle up your worries.

Avoid gossiping about the problem to other people.

If you witness bullying, consider challenging it on others' behalf. Explain your concern to the perpetrator, and ask for their agreement that they will not repeat the behaviour