Last year was a tough year in the higher education sector and looking ahead to 2021 Mike Neate, board advisor for ProtectED and Chair of the Police Association of Higher Education Liaison Officers (PAHELO), says he wants to renew focus on student safety and wellbeing.
“If you don’t move forward, you lose momentum,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of disruption over the last few months and many people have had a really hard time, but we now have to prepare for things beginning to return more to normal while still working through the current situation.”
‘Normal’, for Mike and his policing team in Cardiff, means getting out, meeting and engaging with students in the wider community. They focus on reducing crime and improving safety both on and off campus and particularly in Cardiff’s lively night-time economy.
That means working to keep students safe while they’re out enjoying themselves – and a team of student volunteers is key to this effort.
“On three nights a week we run a ‘Safety Bus’, a minibus operated by a team of two student volunteers and a police officer,” he explains. “They patrol from 8pm to 4am and are ready to help anyone who is vulnerable, maybe because they are unwell, or lost, or at risk of being targeted by criminals.”
While the focus is on the student community, the Safety Bus team helps any member of the public who needs assistance.
At busier times of the year these volunteer buses, as well as foot patrols, are out every night.
The student volunteers – in normal times there are typically around 100 working with Mike’s South Wales police team – make a crucial difference. Their value is not just in providing useful additional resource, but in their ability to relate well to fellow students.
So many problems can be avoided and escalation prevented, with this kind of engagement and light-touch approach.
For example, all the volunteers carry spare mobile battery packs, so they can help people whose phones have died. This is a simple but effective way of allowing people to sort out their own problems – reaching out to friends usually – without further intervention from the police. It regularly proves its value.
Volunteering can be hard work but is rewarding for the students who get involved. For some it’s a first step into a policing or legal career, for others it complements the subject they are studying, or it’s just a chance to help others and get more life experience.
Every volunteer is vetted and receives training in first aid and conflict management and is issued with a police ID number and badge and a special uniform including boots, high-vis jacket and sweatshirt.
All this – everything from the training to the vehicle fuel – is helped with funding from CriticalArc, among other key sponsors.
The company also provides use of its SafeZone solution for the teams out on patrol. The SafeZone technology, which is now used by over 35% of UK universities, will enable the location of every volunteer team member to be pinpointed, allowing rapid response to calls for assistance and making direct communications easy via a mobile app.
Similar work is going on in other cities around the country, says Mike, who is a board advisor for ProtectED, whose accreditation scheme aims to drive up standards of student safety and wellbeing and supports initiatives such as PAHELO.
This work is needed now more than ever, says Mike, whose own team works with Cardiff Met, Cardiff University, University of South Wales and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
While older people may have faced the greatest health risks from COVID, the young have been hit particularly badly by the social and economic consequences and the 2020/21 fresher intake has had a really tough time.
Not only has their higher education experience been degraded, their opportunities to socialise and make new friends have been impacted too – the very opportunities that would normally make living away from home for the first time less of a challenge and more of a life changing experience.
Not surprisingly, with lockdowns leading to enforced isolation, concerns about mental health among these young people have been much greater this year.
Mike’s police and volunteer teams have been helping throughout, even when pubs and bars have been closed. If anything, their work going door to door, giving crime prevention advice and just talking with students, has been more important than ever.
“Thanks to all the support we’re getting we’ve come a long way over the last five or six years,” says Mike. “Our teams are better trained, look more professional, have better technology and feel like they’re part of the police family. And our city is a better place for it.”