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Name calling, discrimination and cyberbullying – this is bullying in higher education

Aviisi conducted a survey of bullying in the University of Tampere. Based on the answers, bullying can mean anything from name calling, talking behind one’s back to mean comments on social media. Speaking of bullying is also something of a taboo. However, Senja, Ville and Jutta refuse to stay quiet about their experiences.

Tuukka Tuomasjukka, text
Pauliina Lindell, images
Jatta Vuorinen, translation

It started on the very first day at the University.

Senja had been living in Germany for the past three years. After a few gap years, she decided to come to Tampere to study German language.

However, she had decided that she would not tell anyone about her years in Germany to prevent upsetting anyone.

As she started to get acquainted with her classmates it became apparent that Senja was older than the others. The questions started flooding in. You are so old! What have you done after high school? Oh, you were abroad. What are the rest of us doing here when there are experts like you among us?

Senja felt embarrassed and hurt. Similar experiences followed all through autumn. During one group project the others thought they would be graded based on the end result and therefore did not do their part. Surely their work was not worth the effort when there was someone much more experienced in the group?

Senja had agreed on an online meeting with the group the evening before the presentation to finish the assignment. She sat in front of the screen for three hours. No one appeared.

Aviisi conducted a survey this February about bullying in the University of Tampere. There were 131 people who answered the survey. Out of them, 45,8 percent had witnessed bullying at the University.

”It feels absurd. You would think that ’highly educated’ people would know how to treat others with respect.”

University students were asked what they thought about the concept of bullying in higher education. Most thought it was an unfortunate phenomenon but some questioned its very existence.

”It feels absurd. You would think that ’highly educated’ people would know how to treat others with respect.”


“Seems like a very foreign concept, at least on our campus. I have not seen anything like it! It would be weird to witness bullying at this age level – we’re adults after all!”

One does not have to go far to find research about this topic. Finnish Student Health Service (YTHS) published the Finnish Student Health Survey this February. This survey is conducted every four years and it covers a diverse range of issues related to students’ health. Since 2008 the survey has also included a section on bullying in higher education.

According to the latest survey, 6,6 percent of university students report having been bullied by one or more of their fellow students. Bullying occurred often in 0,3 percent of the cases. Staff members were named as the bullies in 5,1 percent of the cases. This type of bullying occurred often in 0,2 percent of the cases.

Professor emeritus Pertti Suhonen, who has experience in researching surveys, agreed to give a review of the survey Aviisi conducted. According to him, the survey is not an adequate source to accurately evaluate the frequency of bullying at the University of Tampere.

Suhonen points out that students who answered the survey were most likely from either the Faculty of Communication Sciences or Education. Also, only a small portion of those who the survey were aimed at provided answers. Suhonen also believes that an online survey is easy to ignore if the student has no connection to bullying.

”The results probably give an exaggerated view of bullying experiences. Then again, written answers provide a more interesting view of what type of bullying has occurred, in what situation and by whom.”


Bullying in higher education has many forms as Aviisi’s survey revealed.

Name calling. Talking behind one’s back. Exclusion from the group. Taking screenshots and distributing them. Snide comments and laughter targeted at a fellow student. Repeatedly occurring harassment online about personal values and beliefs. Subtle social selectness. Public humiliation on a shared email list. Deliberately obstructing successful cooperation. Patronising comments. Forming cliques. Lying.

Over a quarter of the students said they have been bullied. It was commonly infrequent: 19,1 percent of all respondents said that they have been bullied sporadically. Bullying was reoccurring in 1,5 percent of the cases.

Out of the respondents, 6,9 percent could not say if they had been bullied. Some of these students further described their situation later in the survey. What is the reason behind the uncertainty? Tamy’s specialist of social welfare affairs, Olga Haapa-aho, regards this phenomenon peculiar. She thinks the conflict arises from the conflict between categorising the experiences as bullying and a fear of being therefore categorised as victims and having that categorisation stick.

Haapa-aho wants to point out that ‘bully’ and ‘victim’ are very strong terms. Those who experience bullying it can connect that experience to the role of a passive victim. This is why she prefers not to use those words during interviews.

Haapa-aho says that she has been contemplating new bullying terminology to make the topic more approachable. There are no definite solutions yet, but for now she prefers to talk about for example conflicts.

”Usually people get picked on based on their looks. But I know that I am not ugly.”

What about the concept of bullying in higher education? Haapa-aho thinks there is a good side to using the word ‘bullying’ as it makes the issue more recognisable.

”It removes the illusion that bullying does not occur in higher education.”

What are the types of things that people get bullied for in higher education? According to Aviisi’s survey, the reasons are diverse.

For some, it is about academic success and battling between different study programmes. For others is it about personal opinions and sexual preference. Some of the respondents believe that simply annoying the bully in some way or another is sufficient. This can mean anything from disturbing mannerisms, pointing out rules to having a larger than average personality. Also other differences from the norm, such as age difference, being at different stage of life and different life experiences are named as something for the bullies to latch onto.

Senja believes it was her academic success that made her a target of bullying. Mean comments were related to active participation during classes and her good grades.

”Usually people get picked on based on their looks. But I know that I am not ugly.”

Starting from the very first lectures and seminars, Senja noticed that others were afraid to answer the teacher’s questions. She wanted to make an effort with the course and also wanted to make things easier for the teacher. According to Senja, it was mostly little things such as filling in prepositions into an otherwise complete sentences.

The bullying showed as comments loud enough to be heard in a small classroom. From the backrow, Senja could hear them groaning about how she was the one speaking yet again. Senja felt that those repeated snorts and random huffs were aimed at her.

Senja estimates that her bullies were less successful in their studies. Even though the comments from the bullies seemed like a way to channel their own personal insecurities, they made Senja put up her guard. During classes, she felt the need to evaluate every single question the teacher asked to make sure it was safe to answer. Talking about this topic makes her tear up.

”It felt like it was my own fault, that I was active in classes.”


Sometimes the situation is reversed. First year student Ville feels he had a part in bullying a couple of times. Once he badmouthed a person behind their back, because they had distinctly different views compared to everyone else. Ville went along with the conversation because his beliefs strongly collided with those of the person they were picking on.

”At least some of the student organizations appear very homogenic in their ideologies. I suspect that voicing a differing opinion would easily cause bullying.”

In another bullying case that Ville recalls, the situation was opposite compared to Senja’s experience. One of his classmates had asked him about a meaning of a word that is considered general knowledge. Later, with his friends, Ville laughed at that particular student and wondered how they had ever gotten this far. In this case, it was simply about amusement.

Ville is not remorseful about the first case, although he considers his actions rather uncalled for. As for the latter, he feels like he should not have laughed as he recognises his actions represent university elitism.

”I believe that my area of study, if nothing else, should prevent me from being discriminatory toward people with differing values than I.”

From the results of the survey Aviisi conducted, it is apparent that students are afraid of being bullied. Most common fears concern negative comments and exclusion.

Ilona Taubert, equality organizer on Tamy’s board, thinks it is positive that students take time to think about their actions. She wishes that everyone would recognise their responsibility in creating the environment around them.

“Very few people want to intentionally hurt others.”

Haapa-aho, Tamy’s specialist of social welfare affairs, encourages students to take action if they encounter bullying and contact the person they think they might have bullied. If the said bullying has occurred in a group setting in the form of jokes, it would be advisable to discuss it next time the group gets together.


Social media is where most of the bullying happens. Aviisi’s survey reveals that over half of those stating they have witnessed bullying, also say that they have seen it on social media. This group makes 29 percent of the overall respondents. According to the answers, cyberbullying occurs most often on an app called Jodel, which is an anonymous discussion platform that is particularly advertised for students in higher education.

After Jodel, bullying most commonly happens on Whatsapp and Facebook.

Olga Haapa-aho from Tamy points out that the increase of student association social media channels (accounts, pages and groups) also provides an increasing number of places for bullying to occur. The unique problem here is the language and hashtags used on social media that may appear indecipherable.

”To an outsider, they mean nothing, but to the bully and their target they are very clear messages.”

This is exactly what happened to Jutta. During her first year at the University she found herself a part of a tight group comprised of people from her student association. Jutta considered these people her friends and they spent a lot of time together.

They were all a part of the same Facebook group that had over a hundred people in it. In the beginning it was like any other social media group for friends. There was the floorball team, they planned trips to Pyynikki beach and looked for someone to have lunch with on campus.

Slowly a smaller organization was formed within the student association. All the goofiness related to student life, such as inside jokes formed during events, photos and videos were all channelled into this organization. Most of the content was from student parties and the humour was inappropriate with topics touching upon disabled people, Nazi Germany and the student union among others.

”Every time I saw them, I felt like I was being reminded of my mistake.”

As the time went on, Jutta started having arguments with her friends over, for example, disagreements over equality issues related to gender and sexuality. Jutta was direct, sometimes even bold, when voicing her opinions.

Arguments began to be more frequent. Once Jutta left in the middle of a party because of a fight. The friends got worried. Next morning, there was a picture on the onrganizaion’s Instagram account with hashtags commenting on how Jutta had left. Jutta did not appreciate this, but felt the comments were justified, since her friends had been worried about her.

Soon the same hashtags were used again and Jutta felt insulted. She messages her friends to say that she was hurt. She was told to loosen up and the whole thing was played out as a joke. Jutta was reminded of her own sharp tongue.

Slowly the original Instagram hashtags related to Jutta disappeared, but there were others created in their place, similar versions that were now in active use.

”Every time I saw them, I felt like I was being reminded of my mistake.”

Ilona Taubert, Tamy’s equality organizer, has taken notice of the fact that there is exclusivity in some of the student associations. These include drinking traditions and gendered instructions for different events.

”There traditions are held onto so freaking tightly, even though we are only here for 5-10 years. Are they really worth hurting others for?”

Jutta tells that her freshman class complained about the actions of the organization in their yearly feedback. One of the responses even said that the organization’s actions had ruined freshers’ week.

The bullying by the organization mostly took place on Instagram. One of the actives of the organization says that the most severe cases happened there. They name an example of a picture of a student that was altered into a parody picture which was later deleted when the person in the original picture felt insulted.

During one cabin trip, the organization posted pictures on social media where the girls from the student association were placed in a layout similar to those made of ice hockey players. There was a separate picture for each year group and the pictures were shared on Instagram and Facebook.

At first, a large amount of students thought the whole thing was sincere ice hockey humour. However, several students in the association say that one of the actives in the organization later confirmed that it was about ranking the girls. These pictures were also deleted later.

In the autumn of 2016, almost a year after the bullying started, Jutta asked that the sites where the bullying occurred, the social media accounts and pages, be removed. She also said that she would contact Tamy’s anti-harassment contact person if they would not be removed.

A few days later all the sites were gone.


Tamy’s anti-harassment contact person is someone students can contact if they feel uncomfortable about something. At the moment, there are two people in charge of that: Veera Kaleva, Tamy’s specialist of academic affairs, and Olga Haapa-aho, Tamy’s specialist of social welfare affairs.

According to Haapa-aho, less than 10 cases a year are reported to the anti-harassment contact person. The nature of the cases vary a lot and the actions taken in these cases range from discussions to police reports. Also the time spent on the cases ranges from a few occasions to several years.

Bullying cases are rarely univocal but most cases Haapa-aho says they deal with are internal conflicts within student association. The student associations change but the frequency of the conflicts stays the same. The individual problems of students are mostly related to their classmates, for example an ex who happens to study on the same campus.

Very few people who have experiences bullying contact the student union. According to the Finnish Student Health Survey by YTHS, there are over 1700 students that reported having been bullied by their classmate or a member of the staff. There are only about ten students per year that contact the anti-harassment contact person.

Aviisi’s survey gave similar results. Only about 5 percent of the respondents had contacted the anti-harassment contact person. This number does not surprise Haapa-aho.

The reasons for this are the difficulty in taking that step and also poor communication on the student union’s part.

”Students might think that how they were bullied is not serious enough to justify contacting Tamy. The general rule is that if you feel uncomfortable or bothered, it is enough to contact Tamy and talk about it.”

According to the survey, most of those who have been bullied have told about it to their partners, friends and classmates. One in three have mentioned it to their families and one in seven reported it to the staff. A little over one fifth of the students had not told anyone.

”The general rule is that if you feel uncomfortable or bothered, it is enough to contact Tamy and talk about it.”

The students are not the only ones who has problems with approaching this subject. Many of the respondents of the survey said that bullying is not addressed by the University enough.

Senja and Jutta agree with this. They point out that bullying is not addressed in tutor training either. Senja says that she has seen messages on a Whatsapp group for tutors where they made fun of emails another student had sent.

Haapa-aho from Tamy agrees to these allegations. There were a few years when the student union forgot to ensure that tutor training included discussions about bullying. During that time, bullying was not included in the training programme.

”People come and go constantly when it comes to this type of work that unless they are constantly reminded, something gets forgotten.” Haapa-aho states.

On the other hand, she points out that other words are used to talk about this issue, namely promoting equality.

Haapa-aho believes that it would be beneficial if there would be an equality organizer in each student association who could direct those who are bullied to the right authorities. This would make the step easier to take. Ville does not believe that separate information sessions around bullying work. He thinks student associations should take the lead on this issue.

There is not requirement in the association registry or Tamy’s criteria for financial support for student organizations to have an equality and/or social welfare organizer. Haapa-aho says that associations get additional points for showing how they create a sense of community in their association, but the lack of such activity is not punishable.

Although they have the authority, the University staff rarely intervenes with bullying. Senja says that when she told her teacher about the problems with the group project the responsibility was transferred back to the students. Students were expected to sort out their issues between themselves.

Ceasefire is a term
that Jutta uses to describe the situation in her student association. Bullying has not been an issue for some time now and she has not wanted to discuss the situation with the anti-harassment contact person. The timing, in her opinion, is not right.

However, her situation has improved as she has applied for summer jobs in her own field of study. Also the home life of this student with a family is going smoothly.

For Senja, the situation has quieted down as well although she too is afraid that the bullying might continue later down the road. Fortunately she has fewer mutual classes with the bullies and since she does not need to do the mandatory language residency, the classes of this spring will probably be the last ones with this particular group of students. In addition, one of her former bullies is changing her field of study.

What also made Senja feel better during her first autumn was when she had the courage to discuss the bullying with one of her teachers. Later that same teacher stopped her in the hallway and asked what the situation now was. Apparently the issue had been bothering her teacher a great deal. That type of care from an authority figure felt good.

What will happen in the future? The possibility of workplace bullying does not scare Senja or Jutta. Senja does however say that her perception of the university environment changed.

”In high school I used to think that all those people there were kids and that no-one would be bullied in higher education level. I guess I was wrong.”


The names of Ville and Jutta have been changed. Several of the members of Jutta’s student association were also interviewed for this articleDo you know of a bullying case where the bully belongs to the University staff? Contact toimitus[a] Bullying by staff members will be discussed in the next issue of Aviisi.



The survey was conducted 7 .–15.2. ushing Google Forms. There were a total of 131 respondents.

The survey was promoted with an article in Aviisi that was shared on Facebook and Twitter. The survey was also announced via Tamy’s communication channels.

The survey had 27 questions out of which 12 were mandatory. There were 14 multiple choice questions and 13 open ones.

Out of the respondents 77,9% were women, 13,7% were men, and 8,4% could not say or selected other.

39,7 % respondents were from the Faculty of Communication Sciences, 20,6 % from the Faculty of Education, 19,8 % from the Faculty of Leadership, 13 % from the Faculty of Social Sciences, 2,3 % from the Faculty of Medicine and Life Sciences, 0,8 % from the Faculty of Natural Sciences. 3,1 % stated some other faculty.

65,6 % were working on their bachelor’s degree, 28,2% were working on their master’s, 1,5% were post-graduate students and 1,5% were members of staff.



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