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27th October 2022

Universities have no “statutory duty of care” towards students

Universities have no specific “duty of care” to their students according to a judge in Bristol. This ruling came following the death of 20 year old, University of Bristol student, Natasha Abrahart.
Universities have no “statutory duty of care” towards students
The Physics building at the University of BristolPhoto: Robert Cutts

A judge in Bristol has ruled that universities have no duty of care towards their students beyond what is required of them by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSW Act).

Universities UK (UUK) and the Department for Education (DfE) have applauded this decision, which was the result of a trial between the University of Bristol and the father of the late Natasha Abrahart, a 20 year old, Physics student from Nottinghamshire.

Abrahart took her own life in April 2018. She had been diagnosed with a chronic anxiety condition, which was heightened because she was due to give a presentation to over 50 of her peers the next day. The judge did rule that she had not been provided for properly by the university as they had not made “reasonable adjustments” to her course assessments given her mental state.

Under the HSW Act, which works in conjunction with the 2010 Equality Act, universities are only required to ensure “the health and safety of their employees and non-employees” whilst ensuring that “the rights of each group are maintained”. Organisations who lobby for universities to have a more distinct duty of care to their students argue that the direction given to institutions contains no “consistency [or] clarity”. There is no independent body which monitors provisions for students by universities.

The Learn Network, a group of 25 bereaved families petitioning for the creation of a “Statute for Student Safety”, argues that “universities must do more to help keep students safe” by creating appropriate “policies, processes and procedures” to ensure student safety.

There is no combined data on the number of students that have taken their own lives in recent years. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates that in the 2019/2020 academic year 64 students committed suicide.

Table showing the levels of student suicide dependent on sex up until the end of the 2020 academic year.
Suicide rate by sex of students who have taken their own live in England and Wales up until the 2019/20 academic year. Credit: Office for National Statistics.

UUK in conjunction with youth suicide prevention charity, Papyrus, released a guide for the creation of “suicide-safer universities” in 2018. The guide details processes and preventative strategies to help institutions cope better with suicide. No evidence has been produced as to whether any university has fully adopted the recommendations or if it has made any impact whatsoever.

An investigation by The Mancunion last year revealed that the University of Manchester has just 12 counsellors and five mental health nurses in their counselling service.

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