En route to Micky’s and Bala’s inductions at the Conference on Saturday in Nottingham, most conference attendees would have had to pass through a sea of young people and their parents who were visiting the university campus to check if this was the right place to apply to next year. The Open Day seemed to have been planned with meticulous attention to detail including the provision of car parks on playing fields reminiscent of the acres of scorching metal that you experience at summer music festivals. The parking is never problematic. It’s the getting out at the end when all are trying to leave at the same time that can take the edge off the buzz of the event.
To reach the Conference venue from the tram stop you walk past Florence Boot Hall, a hall of residence with a well-known Nottingham family name. Sadly at the end of May this year this hall came to public attention after a note was found left in a shared bathroom saying ‘uni girls love rape’. The outrage that followed led to a university investigation, but reports from other universities quoted in the press suggest a worrying increase in sexual violence at other universities as well. Earlier in May, a student at another university in Nottingham also recorded racist chanting outside her room. This too led to an investigation and two arrests. So the places where many young people plan to go to achieve a successful transition to adult life in the company of like-minded students suddenly start to look a little unsafe.
As the young people, their parents and in some cases, siblings, made a day of it, and took a good look at all that was on offer, I wondered if personal safety was high on their agenda? Parents will no doubt have a concern about the often riotous behaviour of freshers’ week played out in city centre streets, but will assume that the accommodation offered by a university would be a safe space to come home to. Not a place of fear and hatred.
The solution is not at all clear, but there is arguably an emerging sense of unease from social media comments about these incidents, that accepted values of mutual respect are fraying at the edges, in places where you might least expect it.
So the contrast to when I visited Leeds University on a wet November afternoon in 1971 for my interview, and a cursory one hour tour of the university, majoring on the bars and nearby pubs, was striking. But concerns about personal safety, and building safe relationships were present then too. Today we learn in minutes and seconds about a range of worrying incidents and the authorities race to catch up. Zero tolerance is the mantra, but winning hearts and minds and placing a priority on safe spaces as Micky and Bala stressed in their addresses remains the key.