Government orders national review of student suicides at universities in England

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But ministers won’t support calls from bereaved families to impose a legal duty of care on universities

A national review of university student suicides in England will be carried out to prevent lives being lost on campuses, the government has announced.

Last year, a NationalWorld investigation revealed that more than half of UK universities didn’t know how many of their students took their own lives. The Conservative MP Nick Fletcher - who led a debate on the issue in Parliament this evening (5 June) - called on higher education institutions to get their “heads together” and improve their approach to the issue.

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Why did the debate take place?

The debate was organised after more than 128,000 people signed an online petition calling on the government to make universities and colleges legally accountable for the treatment of students.

The petition was set up by campaign group For The 100 - which represents bereaved families and takes its name from the average number of students currently thought to lose their lives to suicide in the UK each year. It’s argued the safety of students should be a “legal must” and that universities must be held accountable for their decisions.

Among those listening to the debate in Parliament were the parents of 20-year-old Natasha Abrahart, who was clinically diagnosed with social anxiety and died in 2018 on the day she was due to give a presentation in a large lecture theatre to her classmates.

Her relatives sued Bristol University, arguing it failed to make “reasonable adjustments” for her under the Equality Act. A judge agreed but rejected the family’s claim that Bristol owed her a duty of care - because no such duty exists in law.

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“Surely to goodness, you have to try harder”

Nick Fletcher - who opened the debate - said he was appalled by some of the examples of student treatment he’d heard from victims’ families. He reported students being told by email they would have to leave their course; zero marks being awarded for exams or coursework without explanation; and the deaths of students being announced publicly before their wider family could be informed.

Natasha  Abrahart,  a university student from Nottingham, who tragically took her own life while studying at the University of Bristol in 2018.Natasha  Abrahart,  a university student from Nottingham, who tragically took her own life while studying at the University of Bristol in 2018.
Natasha Abrahart, a university student from Nottingham, who tragically took her own life while studying at the University of Bristol in 2018. | Bob Abrahart

He pointed to a voluntary Mental Health Charter some universities had signed in an effort to promote good mental health and wellbeing throughout higher education - but said they hadn’t gone far enough. Fletcher added that a legal duty of care would mean more support was available, staff would be trained to a higher standard and student suicide data would be recorded and published.

Concluding his remarks, the MP told universities: “surely to goodness, you have to try harder. Get your heads together, you are meant to be the brains of this country, you are doing some good work but you could be doing so much better”.

What do universities want?

Universities UK - which represents the sector - says a legal duty of care to students wouldn’t be a practical way to support them, particularly as many live off campus.

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Professor Steve West, President of Universities UK, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that meant there were “not the levels of control and supervision” in schools and prisons, where a statutory duty of care already applies. He called for a “piece of work with government to identify best practice”.

What will the government do?

Concluding the debate, universities minister Robert Halfon said he’d ordered a “national review of university student deaths” in England - which would be carried out independently - “to learn from these tragic events and prevent lives being lost”.

He said there would also be a new Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce working with bereaved parents, students, experts and charities. Halfon confirmed he’d written to all universities, asking them to adopt the Mental Health Charter by September next year - and threatened new licensing conditions if they didn’t meet the challenge.

But he said the government did not agree that a legal duty of care was the best way forward - arguing it would create a “one size fits all” approach when there was no real agreement on which interventions were “most effective” in preventing suicides.

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