Do universities take peer student bullying seriously?

Young woman with long hair sits on floor with back against couch looking at her phone. Blurred out behind her are a yound man and woman sitting on a couch talking.

In this blog post, PhD candidate Ms Zoe Vaill discusses her research on the quality, usability and implementation of university student anti-bullying policies in Australia and the UK. Zoe has also investigated student knowledge and use of these policies and students’ experiences with bullying at university.


Does bullying actually happen at university?

When researching bullying in the university context, the question of ‘do people actually bully each other at university?’ came up a lot. This shows the disconnect people have when they think about bullying and context. The problem of school bullying and its consequences have been well researched and publicised, and people are accepting that people also can be bullied in the workplace. So, if people bully at school and in the workplace, why would university be an exception?

Although it is under-researched, we do know that many students from around the world are affected by bullying, but the significance of peer bullying amongst university students hasn’t seemed to have caught on. This is possibly because people struggle to identify what bullying looks like in a university context. Regardless of context, bullying is the repeated misuse of power by an individual or group, towards an individual or group, with the intent to cause harm.  ­

At university, bullying may look like peer-pressure around drinking, dating and drugs, exclusion from a group either social or academic (group assignment), spreading rumours or humiliating viral images and video of a person, or the verbal abuse of a person either online or face-to-face.

Frowned upon or actively discouraged?

Whether universities accept that peer bullying is an issue at their university or not, one would think that universities would have a student anti-bullying policy in place – just to be safe – but this is not the case, at least not in Australia. Almost all universities will have a version of the statement ‘bullying is not tolerated at this university’. However, in my research I question whether this statement is actually helping students identify and respond to bullying. Another perspective is that this is an obligatory statement that is there because it is what is expected.

In my research, I found that  some universities have policies which go beyond the statement and provide students with the things they actually need, such as:

  • Accurate and consistent information
  • Student friendly language
  • Details of support services and reporting options
  • Usable details such as contacts and processes in both policy and procedure

Unfortunately, these policies are in the minority in Australia, especially compared to anti-bullying policies of universities in the UK. Based on policy content and usability, many universities in Australia talk some of the talk, but that is about it. The common problems are:

  • Inaccurate definitions of bullying
  • Confusing and interchanging terminology
  • Not including contact information so that students can report bullying
  • Policies are hard to find
  • Lack of follow up to ensure bullying has stopped
  • Lack of information and discussion around prevention, campus culture, and peer support

Australian universities can learn from universities in the UK regarding how to play a more active role in supporting students who experience bullying.

Why institutional passive bystanding exists more for universities than schools or workplaces

There are always going to be examples of schools and workplaces that act as passive bystanders to bullying. However, as school and workplace policies are based on a government ascribed framework, and are required by law, the passive part is more in their response than their policies.

Let’s break it down by type of institution.

Schools. Each school is required by state government legislation to have an anti-bullying plan including an anti-bullying policy. Each state provides a template and standards which school use to create consistent and accurate policies. These templates allow schools to adopt a policy that suits their school and their student culture, whilst also including all the important information students, teachers, and parents need.

Workplaces. Each state government and the Fair Work Commission have templates and toolkits for workplaces to ensure that bullying, harassment and discrimination incidents are dealt with, and workers know their rights, as well as what to do if an incident occurs.

Universities. Universities sit in a unique position where, as a workplace they have policies and protection, but as a learning environment, there are no requirements. This means that there is a gap into which university students fall, where there are no requirements, templates or toolkits provided by the government or any other body around anti-bullying policies for university students.

It can be confusing and complicated as the dynamics between university students and their peers and staff can be confusing and complicated. If a school student is bullied, they are encouraged to tell their teacher or their parent (who then goes and tells the teacher). If a worker is bullied, they are encouraged to tell their supervisor or manager (unless that is who is bullying them), but they also have other options, like unions, as well as legal options. However, if a university student is bullied by another student there isn’t a clear path of what they can do or who they should talk to about it. Do they tell their lecturer or their unit coordinator, and would those people know what to do? What if the bullying was happening outside of lectures? What if the bully was their lecturer?

Where do we go from here?

To improve the quality, usability and implementation of university student anti-bullying policies in Australia, there are a few things that need to happen:

  • Peer student bullying at universities needs to be accepted as a problem by both universities and the state government.
  • State governments need to create resource and institution requirements for university students that already exist for school and workplaces.
  • Universities need to create accurate, usable and consistent policies.
  • Universities as institutions and university students need to become active bystanders.

I hope that my research can highlight the importance of universities not being passive bystanders to bullying within their institution. I also hope that both universities and government can take the findings of my research and create the foundations for more accurate, informative and usable anti-bullying policies.

Ms Zoe Vaill is an HDR member of C4IE and a final-year PhD candidate at QUT. In her research, Zoe has investigated university student anti-bullying policies. Zoe was the 2020 QUT Faculty of Education Three Minute Thesis (#3MT) winner and People’s Choice winner. You can watch Zoe’s #3MT presentation at the QUT final here. Zoe has previously studied psychology at the undergraduate and postgraduate level, and has worked as a provisional psychologist with children in mental health settings. These children’s experiences of bullying were a driver for Zoe’s interest in peer bullying amongst university students.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *