A Thematic Analysis of Students’ Perceptions and Experiences of Bullying in UK Higher Education


  • Emma D. Harrison
  • Julie A. Hulme
  • Claire L. Fox


Bullying in higher education (HE) has been relatively under-researched; despite its likely prevalence and impact on student wellbeing there is scant understanding of students’ lived experiences of bullying. We conducted online and physical focus groups with UK HE students (40 undergraduates from 17 UK universities, mean age: 22), exploring their perceptions and experiences of bullying at university. Thematic analysis was used to identify key issues, specifically 1) the importance of a power imbalance and perpetuation of existing systemic inequality in a HE context; 2) bullying in HE is motivated by attainment of social and personal gains; 3) the tactics used to bully in HE resemble those seen in other contexts, but may be more nuanced; 4) bullying can be minimised and justified within HE, leading to its continued prevalence. We conclude that HE bullying shares features in common with school and workplace bullying, and with sexual harassment. However, further research is needed to accurately define and conceptualise bullying in this unique context. HE providers should consider attending to issues of power and inequality within their bullying and harassment policies. They should also ensure there is clear information and guidance to prevent and reduce bullying in universities.