Petition forces debate on student suicides in parliament

A petition calling on the United Kingdom government to legislate a statutory legal duty of care for students in higher education will be debated in the British parliament on 5 June 2023.

The move follows a number of high-profile student suicides at UK universities and growing concerns about the lack of clarity over the responsibilities of higher education institutions towards their students, particularly those suffering from mental health and social anxiety issues.

The petition launched by a group of parents and siblings of some of the students who took their own lives while at university attracted 128,293 signatures and highlights that no general statutory duty of care currently exists in higher education.

The petition says: “A duty of care is owed to students, and the government should legislate for this. Higher education providers should know what their duty is. Students must know what they can expect. Parents expect their children to be safe at university.”

Among those spearheading the #ForThe100 campaign is Dr Mark Shanahan, an associate professor of politics at the University of Surrey, and his wife Jacquie Shanahan.

Their son Rory took his own life in 2018 at the age of 22 while studying at the University of Sheffield, and Jacquie Shanahan was among those who handed in the petition at the UK prime minister’s residence in Downing Street, London, last month.

Helping future students

Jacquie Shanahan told BBC News which covered the event on 25 April: “There is a lot of misleading information out there as to what duty of care really means so it’s important why we as parents explain why it matters.

“It doesn’t help us, but we want it to help future students. We would like them to know that there is better provision for them.”

Campaigners say around 100 students take their own lives every year in the UK, hence the ‘ForThe100’ hashtag.

Dr Shanahan said he has seen the gaps in duty of care provision during his 12 years working in higher education and that it was time for a proper parliamentary debate.

“I see when things go wrong and I have seen it from my own bitter personal experience,” he said, adding: “It is time universities stopped hiding behind GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] and put real funding into student mental health.”

Also presenting the petition in Downing Street was Duncan Abrahart, whose sister Natasha took her own life at the age of 20 shortly before she was due to give a presentation in front of teachers and fellow students at the University of Bristol, as University World News referenced in a broader story about support for students with disabilities.

He said Natasha was “incredibly caring” but suffered from social anxiety and he was backing the campaign to achieve greater accountability from universities, some of which he accepted had a strong track record on mental health, but he said the disparity between them was “horrific”.

Care for employees

Georgina Calvert-Lee, an employment and equality lawyer at Bellevue Law, is supporting the parents and relatives. She said: “The campaign is calling for the same duty of care that employers owe to their employees.

“It seems very odd [that] employers should owe a duty to provide a safe workplace for their employees while a university is not under a similar duty to provide a safe educational space for their students.”

The government’s response to the petition is to say that “higher education providers do have a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution and, in carrying out these services, they are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students.

“This can be summed up as providers owing a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.”

Universities UK, the body representing vice-chancellors at 140 UK universities, issued a parliamentary briefing paper in response to the petition, setting out its position on creating an additional statutory duty of care for students in higher education settings.

This said that while they believe it is “essential that universities continue to develop policy and practice that is designed to prevent avoidable deaths through suicide” and have made “considerable effort and investment”, universities are seeing increasing numbers of students accessing their mental health and-or counselling services with “an increase in the complexity of what individuals who access their services are presenting with”.

More support for universities

The briefing went on to say: “Universities simply cannot manage this increase in need on their own. Concerted action and further support are required from the government and NHS.”

After repeating the government’s position about universities having a duty “not to cause harm by careless acts or omissions” and adding that they have legal duties relating to the safeguarding of vulnerable adults and equalities legislation, the Universities UK briefing went on to say: “We believe that existing duties provide a proportionate and practical regulatory framework for student safety and health.

“We do not believe a further statutory duty would be the best approach to improve outcomes for students.”

Dr Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, the voice for universities in the UK capital, said: “It is imperative that with growing demand for mental health services, universities are able to work with the NHS and government to manage this demand.”

Beech wrote a chapter in a recently published book, Preventing and Responding to Student Suicide: A practical guide for FE and HE settings, and told University World News that London Higher supports its member institutions through a mental health and well-being network, which encourages “open conversations and learning from situations to improve early intervention, and provision of appropriate support”.

She said they also host a site called Wellbeing Connect, which provides quick and easy access to an overview of which NHS services are available to students in London, as well as a range of self-help resources designed for both students and practitioners.

“On the issue of creating a statutory legal duty of care for students in higher education, we agree that more clarity is needed, not only for families, but also for universities themselves.

“Universities often struggle with the challenges of what level of duty of care they should assume in cases of significant risk, but they are now applying an increasingly broad interpretation of safeguarding in their interventions, including designing processes and frameworks to get in touch with families at relevant points.

“Safeguarding should be focused on the ‘whole lives’ of students, including both their practical and emotional needs,” Beech said.

Culture change

Beech added: “There are ways of ensuring accountability for universities that are not compliance-based. These changes need to come from a university culture change, with leaders that are compassionate and who foster a culture of open conversations, awareness and disclosure.”

Jim Dickinson, an associate editor at the Wonkhe higher education think-tank, said in a blog on the eve of the petition being delivered to Downing Street that the campaign is not, as might be implied from the Universities UK briefing, about duplicating the NHS, or even asking for more mental health support or shorter waiting times or for students to see counsellors.

“It’s really about there being professional standards for key roles that come into contact with students, proper policies, and putting students on an equal legal footing with staff – whose protection under employment law is stronger.”

The parliamentary debate on 5 June will allow MPs from all parties to discuss the petition and put their concerns to government ministers but will not involve a vote on changing the law, which will require additional legislation.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.