Julie Barker, Chief Operating Officer at AUCSO and former Non-Exec Director, College and University Business Officers (CUBO), and Chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) talks about the biggest threats to university security on campuses and says Security Officers working in Higher Education are fast becoming the ‘fourth emergency service’…
The traditional role of a security officer – is it a thing of the past?
The traditional role of a security officer on a higher education campus involves ensuring the safety and security of students, faculty, staff, and visitors within the campus premises. It’s a vital yet complex role with many different factors coming under the remit of security and individuals are highly trained, skilled operators.
There has been a seismic shift in the last few years away from security officers locking doors and gates, and responding to alarms, to a much more people focussed service where the traditional skill sets of a security team are just the very beginning of something much deeper.
It’s the reason that universities are seeing security teams as “the fourth emergency service”. The sheer logistics of security means that teams cover security on campuses 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They are there, right in the thick of it, every minute of the day. They have to make quick assessments in challenging and sometimes dangerous situations.
What does being a security officer on a Higher Education site actually mean?
Take Patrol and Surveillance for starters. Security officers often patrol the campus on foot, bicycle, or vehicle to monitor for any suspicious activities, unauthorised individuals, or potential security threats. They use surveillance systems like CCTV cameras to maintain a watchful eye on various campus areas. They utilise a variety of tech and need to be abreast of the latest tech in an era where tech is rapidly advancing.
There’s a saying ‘prevention is better than cure’… Crime Prevention and Investigation is always at the forefront of security officers’ minds – in the prevention of theft, vandalism, and other criminal activities on campus. And at the start of the academic year it’s down to the security team to focus on educating students on 'staying safe'. Some students are first time away from home, often from countries with different laws and cultures and they are still a vulnerable age group.
Even those returning and moving into the community are not immune - where else can you find a house where each individuals owns a smart phone, a laptop, a TV - those living in student HMO's, are prime targets for burglary and other offences. Security teams undertake initiatives (sometimes jointly with external partners) advising students on security.
The onsite security team may conduct investigations into incidents, collect evidence, and collaborate with law enforcement if necessary. This might include unauthorised individuals gaining access to campus buildings or student accommodation leading to theft and burglary, to more serious crimes.
If there is an emergency (whether medical or criminal) then Emergency Response needs to be mobilised fast and handled effectively. In case of emergencies such as accidents, medical incidents, fire outbreaks, or security breaches, security officers are very often the first responders. There are also natural disasters and environmental hazards to be considered – such as flooding, earthquakes, chemical spills, or gas leaks – they all pose risks to campus safety.
Security officers are trained to handle these situations effectively, coordinate responses, and summon additional help if needed.
Enforcement of Campus Policies is a very important part of the security role in order to maintain standards and keep everyone safe. Security officers enforce campus rules and regulations, ensuring that students and visitors adhere to the university's code of conduct. For example ensuring parking regulations, checking IDs, and managing access control to certain areas.
Security officers on campus always work in close collaboration with local law enforcement agencies, sharing information and cooperating during investigations or emergencies that extend beyond the campus boundaries. They will participate in security planning, developing strategies, and protocols to enhance campus safety and keeping abreast of new features and technologies.
There is also plenty of admin - report writing and documentation all has to be maintained to a high standard around incidents and maintaining accurate records of security-related activities. It’s an essential part of the role and you never know when it will be needed and referred back to – sometimes in a court of law.
The changing role of a security officer due to increased threats to university security
The role of a security officer is changing as increasingly, we see incidents coming into the frame which are far more serious and potentially dangerous issues.
Incidents of violence, including physical assaults, sexual assaults, robberies, knife crime and acts of vandalism, pose significant threats to campus security and are on the rise, including both interpersonal violence among students and external threats from non-affiliated individuals.
With the increasing reliance on technology and online systems for education, research, and administrative purposes, universities are vulnerable to cyber threats such as hacking, data breaches, phishing attacks, and ransomware that can compromise sensitive information and disrupt hardware and software within the university.
It’s a sad fact that substance abuse, particularly alcohol and drug-related issues among students, can lead to various security problems including accidents, violence, health emergencies, and risky behaviour that impacts the safety of the campus community. Lately the increase in drinks spiking with security officer teams becoming involved when students have become aware that they have been spiked.
And we all recognise that many students are passionate activists which can lead to demonstrations, protests, or civil unrest on campus can sometimes escalate, leading to sit ins, property damage, and potential clashes between groups, posing security challenges. Equally universities being targeted by external activist groups. These all have an impact on the wider community across campus due to the disruption.
Increasingly, mental health issues e.g. stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal behaviour among students, faculty, or staff, can impact campus security indirectly by affecting the well-being and behaviour of individuals. Often the security officer teams are the first on scene when students are experience trauma at any time of the day. If a concern is raised regarding a student’s behaviour or mental health, security officer teams are often the ones responding. It’s a fact that the role of security in Higher Education is today more pastoral than it was a decade ago.
And with the increase of international students choosing to study in the UK there are international security concerns to be considered relating to global events, terrorism, and political unrest. Whilst kidnapping / ransom incidents are thankfully, rare, they can pose a serious safety threat to some students especially in areas that have a history of political instability, armed conflict, or high crime rates. Equally, there are certain universities or individuals / families that may be perceived as high wealth or status, making them a potential target. Or individuals such as researchers, scholars, or activists, targeted for ideological reasons.
Today’s security officers have to be vigilant when it comes to hate crimes which are a threat to the safety, well-being, and inclusivity of the campus community. These crimes are motivated by bias or prejudice against a particular group based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or other characteristics and can extend to sexual exploitation, including abuse and harassment within university settings.
The saddest thing that security officers have to cope with is, of course, the death of a student. This is always a tragic occurrence with profound impacts on the campus community.
Addressing these threats involves a multi-faceted approach, including the implementation of comprehensive security measures, emergency response plans, education and awareness campaigns, counselling, and support services, as well as collaboration with law enforcement agencies, external agencies and the broader community to ensure a safer campus environment.
The majority of the above issues are infrequent. But on a daily basis the security team could be faced with the unknown, therefore they have to be ready.
Recruitment of the next generation of security officers
You can see the complexities involved – security personnel are very special people with many skills at their fingertips.
Here at AUCSO we are focused on widening the net in the recruitment for next generation talent. There are plenty of transferable skills which can help, and the role is far wider than what potential candidates might expect from the title of security officer. It’s also a very rewarding career.
As an industry, we are not immune to the current labour shortages but we’re now thinking differently about recruitment. We’re looking at how we recruit, what hard and soft skills are central to success. Which industries can we recruit from, and which professional backgrounds lend themselves to success.
Certainly, the role in the Higher Education sector is diverse, exciting, and rewarding that embeds security teams in the heart of their communities. This will be key in our recruiting messaging going forward.