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Universities fight to keep campuses safe in the face of rising crime threats


Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

The university, by its very nature and original intent, should be open and accessible to all. The reality is that universities have had to prioritise funding for extensive protection services measures across all spheres.

It has been argued that universities are a microcosm of society. This implies that the good and the bad are reflected equally and, to some extent, exacerbated. Universities are fairly large and diverse communities spread across multiple campuses including off-campus sites that may or may not be under the control of the university. The onus for protection services falls squarely on university management.

The obligation of a university is to provide a safe working, learning and teaching environment, protection of resources, infrastructure and people. Universities are repositories of valuable data sets, research and personal information.

Cybersecurity has moved to the top of the list on risk registers with extensive measures put in place to protect information and safeguard the university. This, of course, logically falls under the functions of information technology divisions, but requires collaboration of protection services staff as well. Crimes in society find their way through the permeable walls of our campus.

Sociologist Jane Addams argues that “the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life”. This certainly holds true for universities.

Safety and security remain essential to leveraging the value inherent in the campus environment. The dilemma is that the university, by its very nature and original intent, should be open and accessible to all. The reality is that, despite the porous nature of our campuses, universities have had to prioritise funding for extensive protection services measures across all spheres.

Our contemporary reality is mired in crime, gender-based violence (GBV), poverty, inequalities, unemployment, unstable power supply and several other variables that throw out of kilter any protection services measures. Depending on the geographical location of a campus, there can be further compromises due to external negative factors. The crimes that headline newspapers also plague our campuses, where control over protection services measures is delimited and circumscribed in the law. This creates a dependency relationship with the various arms of the state including, for example, the SAPS and the judicial system.

Barring its core functions, the university is responsible for protection services on campus and, to a certain degree, off campus. To illustrate by way of example, the shortfall of residence beds on campuses means students must migrate to either off-campus facilities or privately owned student accommodation (accredited or unaccredited).

The onus is on universities to develop corridors of safety for students and staff as they travel between spaces which are technically not “university” territories. In the absence of visible policing, the university has no choice but to step in and protect the university community.

In recent years, criminal elements are aware that students have electronic devices for the purpose of studying, or cellphones. This is viewed as an easy target for armed/unarmed robberies. The most recent trend is “fake Ubers” that circle while robbers jump out of the vehicle and rob students or staff. The problem is compounded by load shedding as criminals capitalise on periods of darkness and system outages.

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The forthcoming centralisation of the Privately Owned Student Accommodation accreditation process to Nsfas brings with it new risk factors as it begs the question as to who will ultimately ensure safety and security standards once the locus of control shifts?

Universities have boldly stepped into the fray to mitigate these issues by creating improvement districts or safe walkways (which include patrol vehicles, CCTV cameras, deployment of officers and mobile applications) due to constraints faced by municipalities and the SAPS. This is not financially sustainable in the long run, and it does require concerted collaboration as, in the long term, the costs are prohibitive.

In a society plagued by GBV, universities are not immune to what is often referred to as “the second pandemic”. As we find ourselves at the end of the annual international 16 Days of Activism, aimed at raising awareness about GBV, challenging attitudes and spurring policy and societal change, there is a clarion call once again for more to be done. As institutions, we have to respond accordingly and with vigour.

Higher Health has, for example, developed protocols and best practice with regard to statement taking, survivor support and trauma counselling. It is still not sufficient, as we have seen in headline-making news. The arm of the university is constrained as the power to act resides with authorised security personnel like the SAPS.

Universities are morally bound to provide support and launch awareness campaigns or applications that facilitate ease of reporting or consulting. The efficacy of the inclusion of modules that focus on risky behaviour is still to be tested, but can be used for advocacy purposes. The pandemic has brought to the fore staff and student wellness. This has required a significant escalation and bolstering of psychological services, rapid identification of problems and a range of interventions aimed at boosting wellness.

The complexities of our society and political milieu persist and prevail on our campuses. For example, protection services have to deal with organised crime and syndicates to prevent losses, damage to infrastructure and protection of the assets of the university. South African campuses have been prone to student protests which have varied in degrees of destruction.

A new threat on the horizon is pre-arming for acts of terror on campus. For example, the US has had several active shooter incidents and has had to devise new ways of countering them. This includes identification of threats, management of threat situations and evacuation plans. These need to be included in university protection services plans with closer cooperation between the SAPS, the State Intelligence Agency, policing forums and other security agencies. This collaboration needs to extend to the Department of Home Affairs, to monitor students who access study permits for nefarious reasons using the university study premise under the pretext of gaining access to the country.

Protection services at universities have had to adapt to the rapid changes in society and expand their suite of skills, expertise and services. The aim is about improving efficiency and capabilities, recalibrating in response to the environment, close cooperation and collaboration within the university and with external players and aligning with the wider strategic objectives of the university.

In a climate of diminishing resources, universities will have to dig deep into their coffers to fund protection services if we are to promise safety on our campuses. The question that will bedevil us is, how to do more with less? DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    “The onus is on universities to develop corridors of safety for students and staff as they travel between spaces which are technically not “university” territories.” I’ve never heard such a preposterous suggestion in my life. The onus is on the horribly inept SAPS to provide this. And how come is this an issue today? When I was at Wits in the ’70s and ’80s, I certainly don’t recall being threatened on campus at all. In the late ’90s I took my child to a music exam in the Great Hall – what a shock – the Bursar’s office was gated behind bars, all the ground floor windows of Central Block had thick steel mesh on them. It looked more like Pretoria Central prison than an academic institution. What, exactly, happened in between those decades?

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