Modular degrees linked to suicides

December 20, 2002

Modularisation and bigger staff-to-student ratios in higher education could be contributing factors in student suicides, a guide has warned.

Modular degree courses can exacerbate students' feelings of isolation and "not belonging" as the flexibility of programmes could inhibit the development of strong friendships, says the guide on reducing the risk of student suicide, published by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals.

A continuous series of deadlines spread throughout the year, as faced by students on most modular programmes, can add to academic pressures rather than relieve them, the publication warns.

Higher education expansion and a funding squeeze have also led to a sharp drop in the number of personal tutors who in the past have been a vital element in student support and monitoring worrying changes in behaviour.

The guide says: "Regrettably, the rapid increase in student numbers in the past decade, coupled with a reduction in the unit of resource, has made a personal-tutor system untenable in many institutions.

"In such cases it is very important that the widest possible range of staff is made aware of the potential risks for students and that other systems are put in place to ensure that institutional contact is maintained on a regular basis."

Porters, cleaners and security staff should be included in training to help spot the telltale signs of suicidal thoughts or behaviour among students, the guide suggests.

Widening participation may also be a factor, with students from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to be at risk.

Students' unions can play a significant role in helping students develop strong friendships through clubs and societies.

But the guide adds: "The many social activities organised around drinking alcohol may have the reverse effect, increasing feelings of isolation for students who choose for religious or personal reasons not to drink."

Direct exposure to suicide, or indirect exposure through media coverage, could also heighten risk. The report says a number of institutions have reported clusters of suicides or suicide attempts.

Research by Universities UK shows there were 1,482 deaths from suicide among full-time students between 1990 and 1999.

Data gathered by researchers found no evidence to suggest that incidence of student suicide was highest before or during the main examination periods.

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