Co-create policies to tackle student drug use, universities told

Ensuring students are involved in interventions will help tackle stigma and end ‘culture of silence’, experts say

一月 11, 2023
Source: iStock

Universities need to co-create drugs policies and interventions with their students to overcome a “culture of fear and silence” that is holding back institutions from building up a better understanding of the issue and its repercussions.

That was the view of experts who spoke at a Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference, outlining the work of Universities UK’s drug-use task force as it prepares to report on its findings later this year.

The initiative has sought to bring together key stakeholders from universities, healthcare, the police, student representatives and specialist groups following concerns around the harm caused by drug misuse and dealing on campuses, as well as a spate of spikings and the proliferation of “study drugs”.

It is widely expected to recommend moves away from a “zero tolerance” approach to one focused on “harm reduction” with support and education prioritised over disciplining students who are using drugs. 

“I think what lies at the heart of the way we are operating is co-production,” Nic Beech, the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University who chairs the task force, told the conference.

“So, this is not about a very deterministic or singular approach in which a group of university leaders decide what needs to be done.

“It is about trying to understand what is the nature of this and, crucially, how can we bring about change on it. We also believe it is an issue that needs to be far more visible. There are all sorts of reasons [it is hidden], not least the stigma associated with drug use that leads people to not wanting to be open about it and then often not seeking the help they need to move on.”

Despite several studies pointing to a rise in drug use – particularly substances such as cocaine – among younger people, the extent of the problem is still little understood, with many universities lacking data on how prevalent it is among their student populations.

Arda Ozcubukcu, the co-founding director of the social enterprise NeuroSight and a researcher on drugs policy, said consulting students was “essential” to build trust and ensure they actually follow the policies put in place.

“Due to the way drug issues have been dealt with so far, a lot of students do not trust their university, nor do they see their university as a credible source of information or support,” she added.

“By co-creating policies and interventions with students, you can build that trust because it not only brings transparency to the policy processes, it creates an environment where students feel they are heard and listened to.”

Universities should think very carefully about any policy that may act as a barrier to students coming forward and asking for help, according to Graham Towl, professor of forensic psychology at Durham University and former chief psychologist for the Ministry of Justice.

While universities are “instinctively” more receptive to helping someone get off drugs, he added, the “really difficult issue” of what to do about students who just want to be more informed about their drug taking should also be considered.

“These are things we need to talk about more because they are more difficult questions both politically and pragmatically,” Professor Towl said.

Simon Merrywest, the director of the student experience at the University of Manchester, said his institution was one of those who had gone from being “silent” about drugs to a recognition that harm reduction was the way forward, thanks to input from its students.

He said the university now supports initiatives such as drug testing kits and signposting ways to get support online. The pivot, he said, had not elicited “one single piece of negative feedback”.

Students’ accommodation is often the front line where many of these debates play out, said Jenny Shaw, HE external engagement director for Unite Students. Her organisation is conducting a study with Universities UK to understand drug use in halls of residence.

Provisional findings point to new ways drugs have been getting into the accommodation, she said, such as in parcels or via food delivery companies.

The research has also uncovered stories of vulnerable students being coerced into the supply chain, Ms Shaw explained.

She said some of the solutions lie in providing testing kits on site, training staff in how to spot exploitation and signposting to where to get further support as well as avoiding a culture of “silencing and fear”.

Security guards and others who work in accommodation had raised the issue of policy and practice not aligning across the university, particularly with regard to the balance between enforcement and support, she said.



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