Minister renews call for universities to be ‘in loco parentis’

Sam Gyimah says institutions must be able to tell parents when students are struggling with mental health issues

June 14, 2018
Sam Gyimah
Source: Alamy

Higher education institutions must be able to inform parents if students are struggling with life-threatening mental health issues, the UK’s universities minister has said.

Speaking at the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education, Sam Gyimah reiterated his call for providers to see themselves as being in loco parentis for vulnerable young students who were living away from home for the first time.

The intervention came after the father of a University of Bristol student who took his own life called for data protection rules to be changed to allow universities to tell parents if students are struggling.

“Stories of students who threaten to take their life – but the university didn’t do anything to inform their parents because it’s not for them to do so until after they had done it – are incredibly sad and tragic,” Mr Gyimah said.

“We need to find a way for universities to be in loco parentis where [there are] these life-threatening situations of care, where we respect people’s rights as adults but make sure we are doing everything in terms of duty of care towards these young people.”

Mr Gyimah faced a backlash when he first used the term in loco parentis at the launch conference of the Office for Students earlier this year, with critics accusing him of “infantilising students”.

However, Mr Gyimah said at Buckingham that he was specifically referring to mental health problems that could be life-threatening.

Agreeing that the government has a role to play in the issue, he added: “I would want to define specifically what this is after I’ve actually spent some time with people who have been through this.

“But if we do not fully empower universities, I do not think that we can deal fully with some of the issues we are finding in our universities.”

James Murray, the father of Bristol student Ben Murray, told BBC Radio 5 Live on 12 June that his son had been “carrying a lot of pain and anxiety for six months” but had not confided in his parents.

Bristol has since confirmed that it is considering an “opt-in” for next of kin to be told of a “major concern about well-being”.

Speaking at the Buckingham festival, Mr Murray described mental health as “a strategic issue of importance for vice-chancellors and for the executive team”.

“If you’re not treating it that way, you’re putting yourself at risk, the university at risk – but most importantly – putting lives at risk,” he said.

Mr Murray said that lecturers and supervisors also had a role to play.

“They are loaded up with academic work, but they really are the closest in the front line on mental health care to understand what the students are doing,” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

I have some understanding of mental health issues in young people since one of my daughters suffered mental illness a few years ago. However, I object to the use of the term “in loco parentis” since we are dealing with adults here. I would not expect employers to take a role that would be defined by such a term even though they have a duty of care. Pushing this agenda only helps to infantalise students and put staff in difficult positions. I cannot discuss the affairs of a student with their parents without the permission of the student and I hope it is not being suggested that I should have the power to do something that would not be allowed if the young person was working. The real issue is why the problems are occurring because when I look back at my long distant student years that was when I had fewest responsibilities and tasks to complete. Over the subsequent years, I have had to deal with a greater workload and at the same time family issues, financial issues, health issues and so on. Maybe students are worried that without good performance in HE, they will drop into the underclass. The time must have come to point out that for many of them, traditional HE will not offer the return that it did when I was their age and perhaps consideration of all their options would pay off.

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