Bullying at University

Getting advice and support

Going to university is a big deal and can be exciting as well as nerve-racking. It is a unique experience for many students as they move away from home, learn to become independent and develop necessary life skills. Freshers can often find it overwhelming at first but soon seem to settle into student life. Unfortunately, bullying can and does happen in many walks of life. So what happens if you experience bullying at university? Where do you go for advice and support? How do you get it stopped? Our advice can help you get the answers and support you need.

"I had a pretty hard time in my first year. I got put into an all-girl flat and unluckily the girls who I were put with were really nasty. They would leave me out, ignore me and blank me every day. They would shout at me, gang up on me and felt I had nowhere to turn. In the end, I was able to move in with a nicer group of people." – (Charlotte, aged 20*)


Types of bullying

Although there is no legal definition, bullying is a repetitive behaviour which is intended to hurt someone either emotionally or physically, and is often aimed at certain people because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation or any other aspect such as appearance or disability. Bullying can take many forms including:

Social and emotional - This form of bullying is also called relational bullying. This can include excluding someone out on purpose, encouraging others not to be friends with them, spreading rumours and gossip, humiliating someone in front of others, making someone the butt of their jokes constantly.

Cyberbullying - This form of bullying takes place online via social networking sites, messaging apps, gaming sites and chat rooms. This can be fake profiles, negative comments intended to cause distress, sharing personal information without permission, stalking, harassment, trolling and spreading fake rumours.

Name calling - Verbal bullying is one of the most common forms of bullying and can include teasing, making derogatory remarks about appearance, taunting someone, making threats and using insults as a way of humiliating the other person.

Sexualised bullying – This can form of bullying can be extremely distressing and someone may feel silenced to report this because they feel violated and degraded. Example of this can include sexualised name calling and using insults about sexuality or supposed promiscuity, pressuring you to engage in sexting, sharing of intimate images, texts and videos, inappropriate sexual remarks and in its most extreme form, sexual assault or rape.

Physical – This form of bullying is when someone physically hurts another person. This can be through pushing, punching, kicking, biting, scratching, spitting and any other form of physical violence.

This list above is not exhaustive and there can be plenty of other examples of bullying that can happen at university.

Bullying vs banter

Do we know the difference between when banter can become bullying? It can be confusing for someone to try and work out whether the name calling is banter or bullying. A person experiencing this might feel intimidated or feel under pressure not to make a fuss because others are saying it is just banter.

Student A comes to the lecture and every day student B insults him, when student A challenges student B, he defends himself and says “I’m only joking, it’s just banter” … now we need to ask ourselves is this banter if student A feels targeted or anxious about being called this insult?

If it is one off incident then it may be that it is banter. But, if it becomes persistent and regular, then this is bullying. Banter is when you are joking between friends and you both know when not to cross the line or cause offence to the other person.

It is about how you feel too, if it makes you uncomfortable and you have told them to stop but they are still name calling, then this is verbal bullying. Banter becomes bullying when it is:

  • Intended to insult and humiliate the other person
  • If it becomes regular and persistent
  • Even after they have asked someone to stop, it continues

LGBTQ bullying

In a recent survey called Pride and Prejudice in Education by The Forum, 60% of respondents had witnessed a learner acting negatively towards people because of their sexual orientation at least once. One in 10 respondents saw or heard this behaviour every day and 51% LGBTQ students had experienced homophobic or transphobic name-calling. Name calling and threats were the highest form of bullying.

Many young people feel reluctant reporting this form of bullying and feel that homophobic terms such as "that is so gay" are so commonplace that it is not considered offensive, when in actual fact it is very offensive and a form of bullying. For those facing homophobic bullying, it can leave individuals feeling isolated and withdrawn. It can also affect a person's emotional health and well-being. They do not feel safe in this environment and as a result can either leave university early or their work suffers.

All universities need to enforce zero tolerance policies so LGBTQ students feel safe, empowered and inclusive within the university community. If you are experiencing this form of bullying, speak to your representative from the National Union of Students or your Campus Counsellor. Please download our free LGBTQ anti-bullying poster.

How it makes you feel

Experiencing bullying can cause many emotions and feelings. How a person responds to the bullying is often not a reflection of how they feel inside and some of these emotions can stay with them for the rest of their life.

Being bullied can make a person feel anxious, trapped, unhappy, nervous, isolated and withdrawn. This can result in behaviours such as dropping out of the course, depression, risky behaviours, self-harm, turning to substances such as drugs or alcohol, aggressive or violent behaviour.

A person might also start to believe the insults and this can result in a loss of confidence, self-belief and low self-esteem. These emotions and feelings can often cause scars that last well into adulthood and affect relationships in the future as they may have a lack of trust for others and situations.

Getting help

“Even at university, I can see how bullying can happen. The important thing is to know where you can turn for help whether it be counsellors or the process to move halls etc. Stay strong and don't let these sorts of people get away with being the way they are either just for amusement or because it makes them feel better!” – (Charlotte, aged 20*)

It is important to seek help and support if you are experiencing any form of bullying. You can speak to your family and friends and get their help and support in getting the bullying to stop. 

You may want to speak to someone at the university informally first, this could be your campus counsellor, personal tutor, student union representative, harassment adviser or any member of staff you feel comfortable with.

If you feel able to, you can speak to the person who is doing the bullying and ask them to stop as this is causing you distress and you want to be able to concentrate on your work and not dealing with this form of behaviour. It is important not to take this form of action if you feel unsafe or unsure as they may not be receptive to this and it could make their behaviour worse.

You have the right to make a formal complaint to the University. Once the bullying is reported, a full investigation will be undertaken and disciplinary action may be taken against the bully. You can also get a copy of an anti-bullying policy and harassment and complaint policy from your university.

If you are being bullied or intimidated, the university is obligated to safeguard your interests so that you can learn and enjoy your time in a safe, respectful environment.

You can also call us on 0808 800 2222 or email us at askus@familylives.org.uk for advice. Our helpline is free and confidential. 

This article was developed in partnership with the Ben Cohen Stand Up Foundation


*Name has been changed to protect privacy

This article was updated on January 2020

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