Exclusive: Unis could finally be forced to have a legal duty for student mental health

There has been a ‘fundamental failing of care’ from universities towards their students, says the Conservative introducing the bill

Universities could finally be forced to have a legal duty for student mental health, under a new bill being introduced to the House of Lords.

The bill, introduced by Conservative peer Lord Ralph Lucas, would also require universities to give students the option for the uni to call a parent if the student is in crisis.

Calls have been growing for universities to do so, after several parents – including the father of Bristol student Ben Murray – publicly said their children would still be alive if they had been contacted.

Titled the “Student Mental Health Bill”, the bill includes measures which would require universities to record contact details, for every student, of a person to be contacted in an emergency, and “set out a duty on such providers to support student mental health”.

When the University of Bristol introduced a similar opt-in scheme, 93 per cent of students gave details for somebody – not necessarily a parent – to be contacted in an emergency.

Lord Lucas told The Tab there has been a “fundamental failing of care” from universities towards their students.

“These are young people in their care. They’re taking on a large debt, you owe them a comprehensive duty of care and interest, and you’re not setting yourselves up to fulfil that,” he said.

He believes there hasn’t yet been legislation to force universities to look after students like this, and adds “I think suicides are the nasty tip of a big iceberg.”

student mental health, university mental health

Conservative peer Lord Ralph Lucas, via Parliament (CC BY 3.0 license)

Lee Fryatt’s son Daniel was a student at Bath Spa when he took his own life.

“Like many parents, I was the last to know there was a problem, until it was too late,” he told the BBC.

“I genuinely believe that had I been told, Daniel would not have died that day.”

Universities argue that data protection – and students’ rights as adults – mean they cannot contact parents or share information without students’ consent.

Lucas has put the bill forward as a private member’s bill, which are prioritised by a ballot of the members of the House of Lords. Bills which come high enough in the ballot go through several stages in the Lords, before being picked up by an MP and taken to the Commons.

However, Lord Lucas says the measures have a slim chance of making it into law in this form: “It has a five per cent chance of being close enough to the top of the list to be on early enough to make it through the Commons”.

From 2017 to 2019, just one of 75 bills introduced in the Lords as private members’ bills became law.

But it’s part of a push from charity founder Deborah Streatfield to force universities to step up the way they care for students.

“You don’t know which university is going to care for your son or daughter. And realistically, no young person should struggle in silence,” Streatfield told The Tab.

“It doesn’t matter how much money used for student mental health, that doesn’t preclude that no one’s going to know” whether students are struggling, she added.

Streatfield, who runs social mobility charity The Careers Office, says she has so far been unable to get support from the Office for Students – which says it cannot lobby – but that a number of MPs are willing to back the measures in the Commons.

Warning that “universities are very good at drowning things like this”, Lucas says he hopes that the bill will progress to a point where the government will pick it up “because it’s been chewed over enough”.

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