Universities ‘have to try harder’ to prevent student suicide, MP says

‘Something is seriously wrong with the current system’

Universities have been criticised by MPs for failing to properly support their students and inadequately dealing with the issue of student suicide.

100 students take their own life every year, and currently UK universities have no statutory obligation of duty of care towards their students.

Earlier this year, over 128,000 people signed a petition calling for universities to have a legal duty of care towards their students. Created by the LEARN Network community of bereaved families and campaign group For The 100, the petition was fighting for students across the UK to be better protected, and it was debated yesterday in a parliament building.

In the debate, MPs spoke of many different students who have tragically taken their own lives whilst at university. They highlighted students who have been given marks of “zero” on exams with no explanation or support; been told by email that they are being asked to leave their university; have had to wait a full year to access support, or were only offered six sessions – and spoke about “a general lack of training” for university staff.

“Given that students are paying £9,000 a year to universities, is that acceptable?”, MP Nick Fletcher said. “Both students and parents expect better.”

Matt Western, a Labour MP, brought up The Tab’s 2023 mental health survey which found that just 12 per cent of students said they think their uni handles the issue of mental health well. A survey run by the government’s petitions committee similarly found that around half of students felt their university is very unsupportive and said they don’t feel that they can discuss the issue with their tutor. “For institutions that exist to work with young people, that is poor”, Fletcher said.

“Their entire being is about young people. They really need to do better.”

The petition called upon the government to legislate for universities to have a legal duty of care towards their students. “[Higher education] providers should know what their duty is. Students must know what they can expect”, it said. “Parents expect their children to be safe at university. The mental health, safety and well-being of [higher education] students should be a Government priority.”

In the debate, Fletcher likened this statutory duty of care to an employers’ duty of care for its employees – to protect from “foreseeable harm caused by either direct or indirect actions”. The government says unis already have a “general” duty of care, although critics say this doesn’t work. Parents say this statutory duty of care would improve unis’ communication with families, account for extenuating circumstances and offer more support, lead to more availability of support services and more staff training, as well as making sure any student suicides are properly recorded and investigated.

“Why are universities not coming together to go through the coroners’ reports of the 319 tragedies that I mentioned to find common themes and spread best practice to avoid future deaths?”, Fletcher said.

“I say to universities: these young people are not just customers; they are students, and the sole reason for you working in the environment that you do. I know time and money are pressing, and I know many students are off and on campus and can live elsewhere, but surely to goodness you have to try harder.”

The now-closed petition, via Government website

“Even one suicide is clearly one too many”, Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield said. “We should be asking what more our universities can do, and indeed what more the government can do, recognising that we face a mental health crisis, particularly among young people.”

Durham MP Mary Kelly Foy echoed this. She called the government insensitive and said a duty of care for students could save lives: “The fact that over 100 students take their life each year reflects that something is seriously wrong with the current system. I must say that the government’s response to the petition has been quite insensitive.

“How can a government say to families who have lost their child that it would be disproportionate to implement a statutory duty of care. Disproportionate to whom? One hundred students are taking their own life every year. If there had been a statutory duty of care, they might be here today. What we have now is a general duty of care, but let us be frank: a general duty of care just does not work. If it did, we would not be here debating the petition.”

Universities minister Robert Halfon said he has called on all unis to sign the University Mental Health Charter by September 2024. Developed by Student Minds, the charter sets out how unis should approach mental health, including proper staff training. Only 61 unis, less than half of all those in the UK, are currently signed up to it.

Halfon called the charter “not a panacea but a process”, and said: “It is time that parents and students have the confidence that a safety net is in place, whatever university they have chosen to study at.”

He highlighted a number of areas in which universities should do more for students’ mental health. Unis need to identify students at risk earlier, so support can be offered before they reach crisis point, and academic processes should be more compassionate, so students are supported more compassionately if they have bad grades or are being asked to leave their course.

And he said that lessons from reviews of student suicide need to be shared more widely – something Alice and Rupert Armstrong Evans, the parents of Exeter student Harry who took his own life in 2021, have been campaigning for with Harry’s Law, named after their beloved son. “To ensure that that happens, we will commission an independent organisation to carry out a national review of university student deaths”, Halfon said.

Halfon said that by the end of this year, a new taskforce will put in place an “interim plan” that will help better identify students at risk as well as giving universities targets for ways in which they should can improve. A final report is due by May 2024.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, Calm (Campaign against living miserably) on 0800 58 58 58, and Student Minds online here. You matter.

The Tab’s You Matter campaign is dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

More from The Tab’s You Matter campaign:

‘They made me feel invalid’: Shocking new figures show scale of student mental health crisis

Harry took his own life after he failed his exams. Why didn’t Exeter Uni do anything?

Two thirds of students have felt loneliness at uni. These are their stories

Stock featured image (before edits) via MoniQue Rangell-Onwuegbuzia/Unsplash