Only legislation can fix patchy practice on suicide prevention

Parents have been misled by UK universities about the support available to students, and Parliament must intervene, says Lee Fryatt

June 7, 2023
Student protest demanding better mental health services to illustrate Only legislation can address patchy practice on suicide prevention
Source: Shutterstock

This week’s parliamentary debate on student suicides was a poignant reminder of that day almost five years ago when my son Daniel began his journey in higher education. Because, like other bereaved parents visiting Westminster on 5 June, my child never returned from university.

In the same year that my son died by suicide, another 93 students ended their lives. Every one of these tragedies has resulted in life-changing consequences for families and friends.

But would a statutory duty of care help to reduce suicide, or improve a university’s response to a student in crisis? Many believe so, with 128,000 joining our campaign. Others who have not signed perhaps imagine that some legal duty of care, or at least a “moral duty” to look after students, already exists. This is a fallacy – and a dangerous one.

The current “general duty of care” required by higher education amounts to no more than, as our petition explains, acting “reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students”. Put simply, institutions must not cause harm to their students through their own actions.

Neither is the “general duty” a legislative one. That would require stated cases and statutory provision. Instead, the existing duty lies in tort law; in effect, each case must be tested on individual merit, and each case must prove that a general duty was owed and subsequently was breached.

Such argument was recently tested in court. In the same year that my son died, so did the University of Bristol undergraduate Natasha Abrahart. Like Daniel, she suffered with anxiety-related issues. In 2022, a court ruled that Bristol had breached its duties towards Natasha by failing to make reasonable adjustments in light of her known disability.

In contrast to the sector’s continued assurances, Bristol argued that universities do not have a duty of care to students, on which the judge agreed. “There is no statute or precedent which establishes the existence of such a duty of care owed by a university to a student,” he ruled.

Parents and students are now waking up to the grim reality that, in spite of government assurances, there is no legal duty of care. They want to see that changed. They rightly expect some level of duty of care for sixth-form students, yet within the 10 weeks of teenagers leaving college to start anew at university, that duty has vanished. It is evident from my many conversations that most parents are in the dark over this.

That is because universities gesture towards an unspoken moral duty to look out for students. Read any glossy prospectus and you will find a wealth of reassuring hyperbole about student life, as well as supportive words for parents and guardians about how “your child will be supported”. If you scratch the surface, however, you find there is little substance behind these statements. Many universities have failed to adequately invest in training and resourcing adequate support services for students. Some will privately state that they do not have any duty to provide any support at all, and some will simply state that “students are adults”.

Some institutions worry that they would be overwhelmed if they took on this responsibility, particularly larger universities with undergraduate populations in excess of 20,000. Academics say they are concerned that they lack both the skills and the training to spot potential red flags, much less have a conversation with a student about mental health or suicidal thoughts. Others are fearful of litigation, of saying the wrong thing or that university hierarchies will seek to use them as scapegoats.

Our contention is that a statutory duty of care will address many of these fears. Rather than increasing individual pressures on university staff, it will force leaders within the sector to face up to the realities of student life and address them. It will require the sector to invest in training so that staff can feel confident to spot potential signs, identify at-risk students and have supportive conversations about mental health concerns. It will place a legal obligation on universities to deliver a genuine standard of support rather than just glossy pamphlets.

These are not fanciful requests. Many universities have invested heavily in student support services, but they remain in the minority. Developments include breaking down information silos between academic, student support and administrative processes, investing in IT to monitor engagement and identify potential red flags, then tracking and engaging with those considered to be at risk. In some cases, parents will become part of support-based interventions. If some universities accept this level of responsibility and investment, why have not all of them?

Mental health charters and best practice guidance have already helped to correct shortcomings and ensure strategic focus at some institutions, and yet they remain optional. Just 60 institutions have signed up to Student Minds’ university mental health charter. The current position has allowed too many universities to drag their feet or simply bury their heads in the sand. There is no impetus for systemic change. Optional guidance is too easily ignored.

In many cases, what is required is simply a more student-centred approach. The changing nature of students’ needs must be understood and recognised. Existing practices of academic withdrawal via email, failure to pass on concerns to trusted contacts or to engage with students face to face, inadequate training for tutors or lack of investment in support services should all be revisited through the lens of the student journey, not outdated academic process.

University leadership is, with a few exceptions, dominated by those who excelled in research. This may have served academia well in the past, but the modern university has evolved: it is more about personal relationships than just the singular pursuit of academic knowledge.

Universities are predominantly about people, and this means putting the welfare of students at their core. There is nothing to fear from a clearly stated statutory duty of care.

Lee Fryatt is a lecturer in policing at the University of Winchester and a member of the LEARN Network, a community of bereaved families seeking to prevent future deaths.

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Reader's comments (4)

Whilst every student lost to suicide is a tragedy, the idea that legislation will make a difference is a fallacy. At least, the legislation being talked about here. The elephant in the room: a university student is legally an adult. There's mention that a few weeks earlier when they were in Sixth Form they weren't, they were children, with a different duty of care owed to them AND their parents is true (I have taught & tutored in both Sixth Form and University settings) but like many things in law, there is an arbitrary point at which things change.... some of us are perfectly able to control a car with 35mg of alcohol on our breath but most of us cannot so that's the legal limit! When someone is an adult, we - as the people with a duty of care towards them - are legally obliged to maintain their privacy and may not discuss them with a third party, the only exception being to yell for medical or law enforcement assistance if we believe they are a risk to themselves or others. Even then we cannot, without their explicit permission, talk to their parents about our concerns, not even if we've been dialling 999! If a parent is concerned and contacts us, we can ASK the student to please contact home, but we cannot tell the parent anything without the student's permission, not even the outcome of a welfare check on the student. So, do we want to change THIS law? We already accept the duty of care, no further legislation is required there, it is the 'legally an adult' thing that maybe should be considered.
M Robertson writes that a Statutory Duty of Care won't work because HE students are adults. Yet so are most people in employment in the UK - including all adults employed in the HE sector. Does the commenter believe such a legal duty is not required in the world of work either?
I don't think it will make any difference. Universities care about students' well-being anyway. Someone writing that we should won't change what we do to support them.
Universities saying they care about student well-being is not the same as delivering effective support. Rhetoric and actual lived experience show universities cannot simply be ' relied upon to do the right thing. Poor practices in terms of academic withdrawal, failure to use trusted contacts, and respond effectively to crisis points continue up and down the country.


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