Universities could be sued by students with mental health problems if staff fail to recognise their condition and do not ensure that they get support, lawyers have warned.
There are also concerns that institutions will soon face legal action from students who argue that their workloads cause them excessive stress and claim that they get too little help with their problems.
In a report commissioned by the law firm Eversheds, Neville Harris, professor of law at Manchester University, says there is growing evidence that mental health problems are becoming more prevalent within the student community and can lead to serious cases illness.
Professor Harris points out that universities owe students a legal duty of care not only in teaching but also in pastoral care and welfare.
"Underperformance of pastoral and care duties by a university could give rise to contractual liability. A student threatened with exclusion from a course when his needs prove too difficult for a university to manage may have an enforceable right," the report says.
Less clear, but still possible, is an implied obligation not to make academic life too stressful for a student, the report adds. "The same principles that determine the employer's legal duty to the employee who suffers psychiatric illness due to conditions at work would be applicable to the university/college-student relationship."
Nick Saunders, senior associate at Eversheds, said the report was an attempt to help clients avoid being sued in the future. "We are getting an increasing number of inquiries from universities about this issue. When institutions have a problem with a student, mental health problems are often involved," he said.
Mr Saunders cited one situation in which a student who suffered a mental health condition that caused him to behave inappropriately was told he would be subjected to the university's disciplinary procedure. The student argued that he would not be treated fairly, Mr Saunders said. "Often institutions do not have any other mechanism in place; they need better measures to cope with student ill health."
He said that arguing that putting the interests of the wider student body first would not get a university off the hook in the event of a discrimination claim by a student who had mental health problems.
The Disability Discrimination Act requires universities to assess and provide appropriate support for students with mental health problems.
A recent Royal College of Psychiatrists report says that university counselling services are in effect the "primary mental health care option for many students and should be resourced accordingly".
John Cowley, chair of the Association for University and College Counselling, said funding for such services was not keeping pace with the rise in enrolments across the sector. Students often did not seek help until they were at breaking point, he said, but lack of resources meant they might have to wait up to a month for an appointment.
Counselling budgets per student have fallen in real terms by 21 per cent in old universities and by 30 per cent in new institutions in the past decade, according to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Academics at most institutions get no training in recognising mental health problems among students, a situation that Mr Cowley said all universities must address.
Sian Davies, students with disabilities officer for the National Union of Students, said all staff, academic and support, should be given mental health awareness training. Surrey University is one of the few institutions to do so.
The NUS encourages universities to adopt proactive mental health policies and to ensure that students feel comfortable about disclosing conditions so that their problems can be addressed.