A London uni said it was ‘hardly worth’ releasing its student suicide statistics

The uni had publicly denied it knew how many of its students had died by suicide


A London university said it was “hardly worth” releasing student suicide statistics it had publicly denied the existence of.

Brunel University had previously said they didn’t know how many of their students had died by suicide. However internal emails obtained by The Tab show the university did know, but privately decided not to release the figures.

The revelation follows an investigation by The Tab which found over half of unis say they don’t know how many of their students are dying by suicide.

Brunel originally said it didn’t know how many of its students had died by suicide, in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by The Tab. 

Yet emails obtained by The Tab reveal that, in coming to that answer, officials discussed data they had which showed the university in fact knew two students had died by suicide in the past five years.

Despite this, the officials decided it “hardly seems worth” releasing these figures and responded saying they didn’t have any information, as they were not required by law to hold it. This was the same response they had given in the past to requests asking for student suicide figures.

Now, upon release of the emails, Brunel insists this is because it was “manual, incomplete and unofficial” data.

Responding to The Tab, Brunel said: “You will see within the conversation that numbers have been provided. These records are manual, incomplete and unofficial records. Currently the university do not record as stated in the letter to you on our database the cause of death on our formal records. It is recorded when/If notified as just ‘Death’. As the numbers were unofficial the decision was made to not provide this information.”

However, this is not the justification discussed in the emails obtained by The Tab, nor reasoning given in response to the original FOI request. In fact, one official originally says: “If we do hold data on numbers of student suicides for the years in question, even if that data is necessarily incomplete, I think we should provide it.”

The revelation comes as part of a wider investigation into student suicide by The Tab.

We used FOI laws to ask over 60 universities for the number of students at their university to die by suicide in the past five years.

Brunel’s response to this original enquiry was: “We do not hold this information. We have a statutory obligation to record ‘Death’ as a reason for leaving the University, when we are so notified. We are not required to record the cause of death.”

The London university was one of many to respond in a similar way. Our investigation found that over half of unis couldn’t tell us how many of their students had died by suicide.

In response, Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson said: “The fact so many don’t even have basic information is incredibly alarming.”

So we asked every uni who said they didn’t know for details of how they handled our FOI request, by asking them to provide us with correspondence between staff. Under FOI laws, information given in response to a request is made public, not just to the person who requested it.

Along with Brunel deciding not to release the number of students they knew had died by suicide, the responses also revealed uni officials’ discomfort at their institutions not recording the stats.

One Manchester Met official said: “I do find it a little odd that we don’t have a record of the outcome of inquests involving our students” in emails to colleagues.

“Clearly we do care and if we had a series of deaths (whether they are determined as suicides or not) we would be examining why that might be the case – hence my struggling to understand why we don’t record the information.”

However, a colleague replied: “There is an assumption that the university will/should know all about the circumstances of every student death which is somewhat naive”, with reference to when a student dies outside of term time, or away from university.

At Aberystwyth, one official dealing with the request said: “I appreciate that the response here is accurate and am not advocating a different approach here. However, as a parent I cannot help feel that we should be recording cause of death and that the public would expect us to do so.”

This was dismissed by a colleague, who said: “Unless you’re volunteering to trawl the records of the Coroners around the world, I don’t see how we can begin to do this accurately. Presumably parents would be equally unhappy at being asked about cause of death? And what if it’s a student with no next of kin? Too many questions, I think.”

Universities UK advise that universities should look into the cause of each student death. After the inquest of Ben Murray, a student who took his own life after being kicked off his course with a letter, the coroner warned that universities should investigate every student death to prevent future tragedies.

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Featured image: Don Cload and Rob Emms via Geograph under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.