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Interviews

AUCSO chairman, Mark Sutton

We only had a chance to say hello to the new chairman of the university chiefs of security body, AUCSO, Mark Sutton, at their recent annual conference, at Loughborough in April. We went to Aston to see him.

He retired after 31 years in the police as a superintendent. As a detective he had Wales-wide responsibility for investigative interviewing and doorstep crime. Three Welsh forces worked together to identify those persons responsible for a series of distraction burglaries. To identify and arrest someone behind such distraction burglaries took years of work, besides luck. What of the change from serving in the police to working for a university? He sees synergies, ‘because you are still looking after a community. I am responsible for the security and safety of the Aston community, about 18,000 people.’ While all those 18,000 are not on campus all the time, Aston does have most of its undergraduate students resident on the main site, the ‘Aston Triangle’. And like other unis it has many international students, who call Aston home for the three or four years of their course.

One of the topics that Mark Sutton raised at Loughborough, where he became chairman, was transfer of officers. That makes sense sitting in his ground-floor office, a plain room with little decoration. Birmingham University, and Birmingham City University, are neighbours. If a fire or road accident affected one, it might well affect the other. Mark says: “We are all experiencing budgetary restraints and are all being asked to save money; I think one of those ways [to save] is to look at the word collaboration.” He wonders if university security departments could work together on a regional or even national basis, for instance on procuring uniforms. “Obviously I can go to a supplier and buy a uniform for 30 people at a specific cost whereas if I went to the same supplier with 2030 people, the bargaining power is that much greater; and I may have some discounts on the amount of clothing I am buying. From that point of view, it’s a bit of a no-brainer really.” The same goes for buying vehicles. Mark is suggesting a legal framework with approved suppliers, that a university could choose to use. Indeed procurement across police forces has also been considered for years. Mark sees scope for universities to have common security staff training, certainly in-house, and perhaps contract too: trained to the same level, so that if another Birmingham university is stretched, perhaps by a day or more of protests, that head of security could ask Aston for assistance, so many staff for so many days; and the requesting head would know what sort of officer they would receive.

As for what Mark hopes to do as chairman, he speaks of wanting to build on its successes, and putting the association ‘on the front foot’, to serve its members so that each uni’s head of security does not have to do their own work on a subject. As an example Mark takes the recent Counter-Terror and Security Bill; universities await guidance on how they are supposed to risk-manage external and possibly extremist speakers. Who’s defined as extremist, what about freedom of speech? If or when the guidance comes from Government, Mark wants the association to offer members a checklist, and templates, to help with applying the law; rather than each security manager having to do their own risk assessment forms. While it’s a matter of record that many of the UK terror plotters have had some university background, that’s hardly shocking given that so many young people go to university. Many cities have campuses at their centre, literally and symbolically; and many like Aston are open to the city. Anyone can walk in or through campus. Hence Aston security department, like others, works very closely with police, Mark says, and formalises those partnerships, so that each side knows what the other is doing. Mark recalls an old police saying, that the police cannot solve the world’s problems on their own, and they need the help of others.

Asked what is a typical day or week for him, Mark answers in terms of another speaker from AUCSO’s recent conference; Tony Porter, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, featured last issue. Mark felt that the new CCTV principles – covering notably police and local government – was a good idea for his campus, as a public space user of CCTV, to show that Aston’s cameras are fit for purpose. That’s Mark’s strategic role, reviewing his security systems, and what he needs to do, to keep the campus as safe as possible. Given that students can become complacent, crime prevention awareness messages can urge campus users to look after their laptop, rucksack, mobile phone or bicycle. Not only the content of such safety messages matters: “It’s all about the right timing, because you don’t want to increase the fear of crime. I haven’t much crime in Aston campus; we have a fantastic CCTV system and most people around Birmingham [by this he means most criminals] know that.” Proactive staff who know the Campus and its issues, being in the right place at the right time.

This brings us on to a recent change in the campus landscape; student fees. “It’s all about student satisfaction, that’s the key issue for us, and quite rightly, they pay a lot of money for the privilege of coming to university; and hence part of that satisfaction is ensuring that they are safe; and I am sure most mums and dads when they are looking at universities with their children look at how safe it is. Particularly city centre campuses.” Mark tries to have his staff ‘on the ground’ and visible as much as possible. He has a team of staff dedicated to student residences, making night patrols. “And I think they have been a huge success, and I think the feedback is that they have been successful since we employed them in this role, because they look after their community at night. Most of the students will know their faces, if they don’t know them by name. They will know they are on patrol every night of the week.” As he acknowledges, that with budgetary restraints you may not always be able to employ further resources, so you might have to look at updating your CCTV, or lighting. The old days of security guards with bunches of keys are long gone, though some of that work remains. “But I think the role of campus security has changed, certainly in the short time I have been here at Aston. It’s about being more visible, your skills at communication, with dealing with first aid issues, your skills at dealing with mental health issues, a subject that all Universities have concerns about. That’s something nationally we should be looking at, how do we best equip our staff, for the new challenges with mental health?” He’s not sure, he adds, whether security officer is the right name any more; and some universities have moved away from that term. “It’s a difficult one; I don’t think anybody has any answer to re-naming the security officer. Certainly the roles are changing.” Officers remain the ones that receive and must answer the call, for a protest or other trouble on campus, or a crime; yet many other times the officer provides reassurance and advice, or first aid, to a student, member of staff, or visitor. The campus security department has to fit the right resources to the right part of the week.

Partly because it’s a rainy late May Monday morning – Mark has an umbrella in a corner of his office – few are about on campus. On a summer night, it’s far busier. Like other universities, Aston has a conference centre; hotel; car parking; summer events to bring in income when most of the students are on vacation. University security is demand-driven. For years AUCSO has been in the premier league of security sectors for its work, and representing itself to the institutions it works for. AUCSO has also made international links and exchange visits. Mark is speaking at the US-based university security body IACLEA annual conference at Nashville, on radicalisation and the British ‘Prevent’ method of countering it. Mark sums up: “Over the next few months I will be looking at everything that has been achieved; there may be very few things we can improve; but I think it’s worth reviewing where we are. We have a business plan as an association; does it take us to where we want to be over the next two or three years, and does it give us the evidence we are going to be fit for purpose, for whatever challenges we have as an association representing the University security sector; I am really looking forward to the challenge.”


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