Crime in institutions of higher learning

Crime in institutions of higher learning – Understand


South African tertiary institutions are often affected by the country’s consistently high crime rates. Many would perceive university institutions as being safe environments where education is the common language for everyone. However, it is an inevitable fact that students often become victims of crime within the campus and even their own residences. 

Crime on campus is a problem that affects students and staff. The amount and type of crime on campuses has implications for students’ educational and social developments. This is because they are less likely to attend, spend time on, or participate in social activities on high-crime campuses (Barton et al. 2010).

The study of crime on campus is a broad one which requires many variables to be studied more closely. These include variables such as: home environment; negative peer influence; inadequate parenting style; poor coping skills; low self-esteem; poor interpersonal skills; inappropriate solutions to stressful situations; as well as drug and alcohol abuse. My colleague and I conducted research at one of the University of KwaZulu Natal campuses (Howard College), which showed that students faced victimisation throughout their academic careers.

Semi-structured one-on-one interviews and a focus group were conducted in an attempt to get a clear understanding of the social context of crime on university campuses. Data was thematically analysed which unpacked the phenomenon of crime in higher institutions of learning.

Universities as 'hotspots' of crime

Many students enter university with negative family, social and economic experiences in their backgrounds. This could be as a result of a shaky high school life that left the student traumatised or even motivated to engage in criminal activity. Such factors act as a catalyst in the rate of crime that occurs on campus. 

As violence within our country increases and filters into the adolescent and young population, and as the number of students registering at universities rise, there will inevitably be an increase in the rates of crime in our institutions. This has been evident in the nature and incidences of crime that have been depicted in previous studies.

The crimes of rape, theft, assault, vandalism and murder that take place nationwide are beginning to affect university institutions dramatically. Due to financial assistance more students make the choice of registering for tertiary education, which means that the amount of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who live in societies challenged by crime, will also increase. These are common factors that contribute to the ever-increasing crime rates of different institutions. Many of these students from crime-challenged communities were taught beliefs, attitudes and behaviours which may “predispose, enable and reinforce violence” (Pezza & Bellotti, 1995). 

Young people are being arrested in ever-increasing numbers (Cohen, 1977). It is an observable fact that young people are the main perpetrators of crime within university campuses and residences.

While students and staff at tertiary institutions engage in their routine activities on campus in an attempt to maintain this idealistic view of a tertiary institution, they are not immune to becoming victims of crime on campus.

According to Tseng et al. (2004), “criminal activities on campus not only undermine the quality of the learning environment but also reduce the positive activities of people associated with campus” (cited in Jennings et al, 2007). High campus crime rates may discourage prospective students from attending certain universities, and may similarly dissuade parents from paying tuition to send their children to institutions that could be regarded as unsafe (Fisher & Nasar, 1992). 

Factors that contribute to crime on campuses

There are a variety of causal factors where crime is concerned. Some attribute this to the drinking culture common to college campuses, while others blame drugs, stress, unaddressed mental illness or some combination of these factors (Sandbox Networks, 2016). 

Other factors that influence crime rates are those such as poverty and unemployment which generally means that if a population of the area surrounding the institution is largely unemployed, then there will likely be more crime because these unemployed people may deviate to crime as a way to make ends meet.

Whatever the causal factors may be, it is of great significance that crime on university campuses be studied in order to generate a holistic approach to dealing with the issue of crime that students, staff and the community are faced with.

The impact of crime on campuses

The general atmosphere from the research respondents regarding the nature of crime was that it was not too serious and did not result in injury or death. Most of the victims of these crimes ended up going through trauma and fear.

The frequently reported crimes are those where the victim goes through a traumatic experience and ends up living in fear of being victimised again. 

Gover et al (2008), identifies two major categories of crimes that occur on tertiary institution campuses. The first type referred to is the “low-probability, multiple-death incident”, where consequences are wide-spread and long-lasting. This can be the effects of rape or murder within an institution. 

Cases of rape are commonly overlooked and not dealt with accordingly. The respondents used the words sexual assault interchangeably with rape.  However, rape is a more serious offence and is becoming more common on campuses. 

The second category includes crimes such as robbery, sexual assault, assault, theft, burglary, or fraud, and has a much higher rate of occurrence in contrast to the first. Both these types of crime have entered into university institutions leaving many students victims of crime. 

As much as they differ in impact, they both leave behind a footprint of trauma, fear and distraction in the institution.  It has also been discovered that high crime rates result in poor academic performance from the students. 

This is caused by the fear invoked in students that makes them refrain from being active in campus life and also from trauma caused by victimisation. 

Another way students are impacted is that they lose their sense of autonomy and safety.

The challenge of under-reporting

Campus crime is undeniably a serious issue of concern for current university students, parents of prospective students, campus law enforcement personnel, and the campus community as a whole (Jennings et al, 2007). As such the under-reporting of campus crime becomes a large problem.

As Fisher (1995) notes: under-reporting leads in turn to a distorted picture of crime on campus. Factors such as the availability and presentation of campus crime statistics motivated research on this issue. This research broadens our understanding and awareness of campus crime and also puts into perspective the different crimes that take place on campus.

Research suggests that crime, violence, delinquency and antisocial behaviours are not new. It is adamantly necessary for the extinction of these antisocial behaviours on university campuses in order to create a constructive and conducive learning environment.

There is a growing body of research that examines university campuses with regards to crime prevention strategies, services for victims of crime and the prevalence of victimisation. The problem here is that these studies have been focused on traditional campuses rather than urban campuses. 

One study reported that approximately 50% of crime is reported by students to campus or local police (Sloan et al, 1994). Urban campuses face unique issues, including the concept of “spill over”, where the environment surrounding a higher education campus influences the attraction of criminals to prey on the university (Fox and Hellman, 1985). 

Crime statistics are key

 Prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s universities and colleges were permitted to privately handle criminal matters due to a legal understanding that college administrators were serving as guardians to students (Fisher 1995). Before and during this period crime statistics and criminal reports of a campus were considered private educational records. 

Unlike in the United States of America (USA), South African tertiary institutions are not legally bound by legislation to report on all campus crime incidents. In South Africa campus crime statistics and crime/incident reports are considered private educational records. Hence, not all institutions make their crime incident reports publicly available. 

Due to this, there is little or no awareness of crime on universities and not much is done by different stakeholders to curb crime. 

The underwritten assumption is that if crimes on university campuses were compiled and conveyed to the public, students and staff would be more likely to report criminal activities to campus and local police.

This also implies that if students and prospective students are made aware of the crime rates in institutions and residences, they would be deterred from engaging in behaviours that make them easy targets.

It also means that the entire university as a community would work together to develop proactive measures to deter and prevent crime. The different stakeholders shoudl come together and bind institutions to report their crime statistics so that the university can be held accountable.


  • The university serves a larger community of people other than just its students. Access cannot be denied to people who wish to properly use the university’s facilities just because others choose to misuse it. What needs to be done is that security measures to prevent crime need to be upgraded and a proactive system needs to be installed.
  • Surveillance cameras are a good start to ensuring that all activities are watched and which will deter perpetrators of crime from even thinking of committing a criminal act within the facilities. 
  • Visibility of security guards can also deter criminal activity. This could be done by making sure that security personnel patrol high risk areas at all times in branded uniforms.
  • With the regular change in technology, one would reiterate the importance of upgrading security technology to fit present environmental challenges. For example, at entrances of the institution such as main gates, library entrances, residence entrances etc.; it will be much more effective to have a fingerprint system that only allows for one person to enter or leave because the check-in book has not proven to be effective in deterring or dealing with crime.
  • The proper installation of turnstiles in demarcated student areas will be a good way to slow down and catch perpetrators once they are identified. 


Safety is often referred to as freedom from harm; however it is often taken for granted on a daily basis. University campuses and residences are perceived to have the safest security provision to make sure that no crime occurs, however students still face victimisation.

Students enrol in institutions with the understanding that they will be taken care of until they fall victim to crime. 

The development of this country lies in an education system that permits good performance of students and safe custody of these students in residences that are free of crime. 


Barton, M. S. Jensen., B. L. and Kaufman, J.M. (2010). Social disorganisation theory and the college campus.

Fisher, B. S., & Nasar, J. L. (1992). Fear of crime in relation to three exterior site features: Prospect,refuge, and escape. Environment and Behavior, 24, 35-65.

Fisher, B.S. (1995). Crime and fear on campus. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 539, 85-101.

Fox, A.L., & Hellman, D.A. (1985). Location and other correlates of campus crime. Journal of Criminal Justice, 13, 429-444.

Gover, J., Gover, A.R., Melton, D. & Swanson, R. (2008). Creating a campus security sensor and sensor system network test and training facility. Available at: (retrieved 24 August 2011).

Jennings, W.G., Gover, A.R. & Pudrzynska, D. (2007). Are Institutions of Higher Safe? A Descriptive Study of Campus Safety Issues and Self‐Reported Campus Victimization among Male and Female College Students. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 18 (2): 191-208.

Pezza, P.E & Bellottie, A. (1995). College campus violence: Origins, impacts, and responses. Educational Psychology Review.  7(1). 105123.  

Sandbox Networks Inc. (2016). Timeline of worldwide school and mass shootings. Retrieved from 

Sloan, J.J. (1994). The correlates of campus crime: An analysis of report crimes on college and university campuses. Journal of criminal Justice, 22, 51-61.

Tseng, C.H., Duane, J., & Hadipriono. (2004). Performance of campus parking garages in preventing crime. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities, 18, 21-28.