Natasha Abrahart’s parents are fighting to rewrite the rules on student mental health
Alongside 25 other bereaved families, they want MPs to enact a legal duty of care for students at uni
Bob and Margaret Abrahart are on a mission. Earlier this year they took Bristol University to court and won. A judge found the university had discriminated against their daughter Natasha, leading to her suicide. The university has since submitted a request to appeal to the High Court.
Now they are taking on the entire higher education sector. Alongside 25 other bereaved families, The Learn Network is calling on MPs to make a change in the law so that all universities have a legal duty of care towards its students. The campaign group’s petition has reached 4,000 signatures so far.
Although the judge found Bristol University had breached the Equality Act in its treatment of Natasha, the judge did not find the university owed Natasha a “relevant duty of care”. “If Natasha hadn’t qualified under her disability, [the court case] might have been different,” Bob believes.
Surely, unis already have a responsibility to care for its students?
Not according to the Abraharts. “For years, [universities] have been saying they have this duty of care but they haven’t,” Bob says. “You can’t believe this is one of the only areas in the world where you haven’t got this right.”
“Perhaps they talk about a moral duty of care, the thing about a moral duty of care is that depends on the roles of the individual,” Margaret explains.
“Any student will know, one tutor is not the same as another. You’ve got some people that work incredibly hard and maybe go too far to support students and you’ve got other people who don’t bother and that consistency is a risk.”
Bob goes further, he says: “The academics don’t have any responsibility. Everything is dumped on the student. The student is responsible for getting the information. Everything is remote from each other.”
Even universities admit what a duty of care for students actually means currently “isn’t clear”. Simon Phillips, deputy director of student and academic services at UWE, questioned: “What is the role of a university and what are the parameters we’re trying to set and exercise that duty of care within? It’s not clear yet, and that’s why I agree that duty of care being defined would really help.”
‘We are asking for reasonable things’
The Abraharts believe what they are arguing for is logical. Rather than universities focusing on simply increasing the number of counsellors, they need to look within their institution at the processes and practices they employ to identify students who are at risk. “We are asking for reasonable things. If someone is sent a referral, I expect someone to action it not to file it. If there are national guidelines, I would expect unis to adopt them and follow them,” Bob says.
If you want to explain the campaign and petition simply, Bob quips: “What I would do is say ‘If you want the rights you are being denied, click here'”.
Across the sector however, universities are not all in favour of the campaign. Universities UK says it “does not believe that a statutory duty of care is necessary, as universities are already subject to health and safety regulations and duties under the Equality Act.”
‘I think it scares unis rigid’
The Abraharts accept the implications of what they are fighting will cause shockwaves throughout the system.
Bob maintains: “Currently the whole sector does the same thing. The whole process is based on some historic model and they are still working for the old model because they’re comfortable and it works for the system.”
A legal duty of care will mean “you don’t have to have a diagnosis, you don’t have to prove you have a disability and I think that scares unis rigid”.
“Somebody who might be depressed or recently bereaved or they’ve got a lot of stress in their life may be equally disadvantaged but they wouldn’t be covered by the Equality Act and it’s important those people are also entitled to reasonable actions from the university.
“All of a sudden, the staff are suddenly responsible for spotting problems whereas before they were entirely removed.”
Bob and Margaret are also keen to stress this goes beyond student mental health and suicide as well. “It is everything,” Margaret says.
“Although we are a set of bereaved parents who have seen the extreme of it. What we can learn from our experience will also impact students who perhaps leave university or their life is difficult at university,” she says before adding: “But what’s important is we learn from when things go seriously wrong.”
Bob and Margaret think universities might also be afraid of “the cost” of implementing changes. “We are asking them to do their job properly, that shouldn’t cost a lot. But the cost of not doing it and the cost of student mental health is very high.”
‘You’re not supposed to take a billion pound institution to court and win’
Despite the battle they are up against, Bob and Margaret are optimistic. “You’re not supposed to be able to take a billion pound institution to court and win. We’ve shown that the law does apply to them and that’s caused a bit of a shock.”
Defiantly, Bob says: “At the end of the day, we are not scared of them. You’ve got two of the best researchers, us two, you are ever going to get. They can give us 150 things because they can’t be bothered to look through them and we will spend every day going through them.”
“When you lose something that’s really, really precious to you, it gives you a drive that you wouldn’t ever have and you won’t let go of the bit.”
If you want your rights you are being denied, click here.
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 contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58. You matter.
A list of well-being services available to Bristol students can be found here.
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Featured image before edits via SWNS