Will my child be safe at university?

  • Although students are young adults by the time they go to university abroad, this will be the question in many parents’ minds long before they leave the parental nest and the relative safety of Hong Kong
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2019, 10:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2019, 3:35pm

News of mass shootings in the United States or rising knife crime in the United Kingdom can be alarming but the perceptions that they create and the fear that they engender can be disproportionate to the actual risks involved.

I have always found it difficult to talk to students about this topic and dispense some common-sense advice without creating a rather dark picture. How do you tell a young person (or their parent) without frightening and alarming them?

One challenge here is the fact that Hong Kong is so safe for young people that our children are rather ‘green’ and have not developed many of the precautionary behaviours of their overseas peers.

Safe from what?

We don’t always specify what we mean by safety. Is it safety from: physical assault; sexual assault; mugging, theft or burglary; racism and verbal abuse or online trolling?

The above are probably in a rough order of severity for most people and it is worth noting the relative incidence of each type, where reliable statistics are available (e.g. sources indicate that less than a quarter of cases of sexual harassment are reported). These ‘types’ also indicate that some of the advice given needs to be gender-specific.

University undergraduates are statistically more likely to be the victims of a crime than members of the general population. Why? – because we know what we’re doing! To be a little more generous to our students; they are newly independent, suddenly in a new country, in an unfamiliar campus and city environment; they are excited about starting college, making new friends and they let their guard down (if it was ever up).

Before you panic, the crime they are usually the victim of is burglary or petty theft. They still put their iPhone in the back pocket of their jeans and they rush out to that freshers’ party without locking the door of their dorm room properly, laptop open on the bed. Petty thieves know that students are easy targets and a student-shared house with an unlocked door can be a bonanza!

Students can also make the mistake of assuming that because their peers have shown the same intellectual prowess to enter the university, they are also all morally upright – this can’t be guaranteed.

Does technology help or hinder?

The answer is both. Awareness is the single most important quality a student can develop to ensure his or her own safety – a pair of headphones and/or a pair of eyes glued to one’s smartphone can reduce awareness to a dangerous level if alone and off campus.

On the positive side, there are now a plethora of apps such as Circle of 6, Guardly and StreetSafe that allow the student to set off an alarm or an expression of concern to friends with one or two taps on his/her smartphone.

Technology delivers information and the opportunity to research safety issues and compare crime statistics on general sites such as ‘The Complete University Guide’ for the UK or the ‘Campus Safety and Security’ site for the US. Individual university websites will also give advice and outline the campus security services available.

Universities take student safety very seriously indeed and put in place security systems such as ‘blue lights’, campus police, escorts for late night returnees, etc. They give advice at orientation and often make this specific to new international students. Students themselves will often set up ‘buddy’ systems to take care of and watch out for one another (often not just in terms of physical safety but also mental health).

What are the top tips for student safety?

You’ll find dozens of these lists online and some of the most common tips are:

  • Take responsibility for your own safety
  • Develop an awareness of your surroundings (e.g. what is the area just off campus like?)
  • Don’t walk alone off campus at night
  • Watch your drinking (for increased vulnerability) and watch your drink (for unwanted additives)
  • Secure and insure your belongings – laptop, bike
  • Secure and lock your room and/or house
  • Establish emergency contacts
  • Protect your identity documents, passwords and pin numbers and your social media access
  • Learn to say ‘No’ and say it firmly in the case of sexual advance
  • Learn self-defence and carry pepper-spray and a whistle#

#this advice is not universal and many correctly advise flight rather than confrontation. I tend to agree, although I think the whistle is an excellent idea for momentary disorientation.

My plea to students and parents would be to avoid assumptions or generalisations by country, to do your research in depth, visit the university if possible and talk to current/recent students directly or online (or use student websites such as Niche or the Student Room). I’m confident that they can put all of the above in a perspective that will put your minds at rest.