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A study in safety
September 2008

It's an exciting time when your children head off to university. There's the joy of discovering new friends, the late nights and the parties to look forward to - and the kids will probably have a good time too.

But, as you'll remember if you went to university yourself, it's not all fun, and the early days away can be a testing time for any student. Moving towns and living away from your parents for the first time is hard, and even the nicest and most outgoing teenager can take time to make new friends.

In fact, students can be vulnerable throughout their time at university. According to the Home Office, one in three students is the victim of a crime each year: averaged out, that means that the typical degree student can expect to fall victim once during their course.

You don't need a degree to see why criminals target students. The Home Office explains that they "own more expensive consumer goods per head than the rest of the population". These days that means iPods, laptops, digital cameras and even games consoles. These might all be safe in a well-policed student hall, but in a poorly-maintained flat-share they can be ripe for the picking.

Unfortunately, students don't always help themselves. Most undergraduates have never lived away from home before, so they may have a bit to learn about how to keep themselves and their belongings safe.

Fortunately, it isn't just academic. Universities and the police both take student safety seriously, and with a bit of support and advice it's possible for any student to reduce the risks they face.

Safety firsts

Whoever you ask, the key message on student safety is that it's largely down to common sense. Basic, general security tips that apply to everyone are particularly relevant to students. Simply keeping valuables hidden removes the temptation to break into a car, for example, while opportunist thieves will look elsewhere if a home's doors and windows are left locked shut.

The Home Office recommends that students are particularly careful who they let into their halls of residence, and that they lock their door whenever leaving their room. Students looking for a house to rent should choose an area they feel safe in, says the National Union of Students (NUS). It adds that they should make sure that the house has locking windows and all its keys are accounted for.

Even the most careful students can be unlucky, though, as 20-year-old Richard knows to his cost. In his first week - before he even made it to his first lecture - his London flat was burgled while he enjoyed a night out.

"It was totally gutting and just the worst introduction to university," Richard - now in his second year - reflects. Among the items taken were a laptop, iPod, Playstation3, TV, camera and watch - a haul worth some £2,000.

"Coming from a small town, I had really looked forward to getting away, but after that experience I realised what the wider world was like."

Richard's possessions may have disappeared without a trace, but the police are constantly recovering stolen goods and some people have more luck. For the best chance of recovering possessions, the Home Office recommends that students mark them with the initials of their university and their student ID number.

Hot property

The police can't recover everything, of course, so students need to allow for losing their belongings. Computers get stolen and hard disks go wrong, so it's vital to keep a regular backup of all work. Some online backup services like Mozy have a free service with enough space to store a typical student's documents - helping make sure that whatever else happens, a student's degree won't be set back.

The Home Office recommends that students take out insurance to help them replace stolen items, something that was still on Richard's 'to do' list when he was robbed. "Insurance isn't high on your list when you think about the exciting stuff you could be blowing your money on," he admits.

His dad Gerald agrees, wishing that he'd "made him take out the insurance before he moved".

With bikes, clothes and so many gadgets, it's vital that students give a proper estimate of the cost to replace their belongings when shopping for a student insurance quote. It's also important to check what the policy covers, and any restrictions.

Insurers may need to see receipts for some expensive items, and you should keep a record of serial numbers to give to the police - it's another way of proving you own any recovered goods. You can keep track of a portfolio of possessions via the free Immobilise website.

Personal safety

Possessions can be replaced, but students don't just fall victim to burglaries. By simply being out late, students face a higher chance of mugging and other assaults, and these things can even happen on campus. The Home Office advises students to walk in groups at night, to club together to take a taxi home, or just to sleep on a friend's floor for the night.

In pubs and clubs it's essential - for men and women - to keep an eye on your drink. Some criminals surreptitiously add sedatives or other chemicals to unguarded drinks, with a view to stealing from or conducting a serious assault such as rape on the person drinking it. NHS Direct has detailed advice on how to avoid spiked drinks. If you feel unusually drunk or in any way groggy or uncomfortable when drinking, immediately tell somebody you can trust such as good friends, and the management at the bar or club you're in.

Top tips

Before you go: Pay attention to security advice sent by the university and/or its student union. Consider attending any parent-and-student open day before the start of term, and ask for advice on safety. Check the university's website for additional information - the University of Sunderland's interactive Campus Watch site is full of useful advice, for example.

When you go: Don't bring valuable equipment if you can avoid it. A laptop may be useful, but televisions and games consoles can prove a distraction, while flashy jewellery or gadgets could make you a target.

While you're there: Get to know your surroundings and be aware at all times. Lock up, keep an eye on your drinks and always go out with friends - you'll be safer and you'll have more fun.