Higher Education Students: Statutory Duty of Care Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Higher Education Students: Statutory Duty of Care

Helen Grant Excerpts
Monday 5th June 2023

(11 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Helen Grant Portrait Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)
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The campaign that led to this debate first came to my attention when I met my constituent Hilary Grime and her son Hamish in December last year. Hilary’s daughter Phoebe had been a pupil at Cranbrook School in my constituency, where she had been a happy, outgoing student who loved surfing and ice hockey. But she struggled when she moved to university, and tragically, on 5 June 2021—exactly two years ago today—she took her own life in her university accommodation. The pain and ramifications suffered by families who have lost a child to suicide are unimaginable, but very sadly many other parents and families have been touched by similar devastating losses.

Over 2.8 million students are in higher education in England and Wales. Over the past 10 years, one student in England and Wales has died as a result of suicide every four days. It is an absolute tragedy that we are losing so many of our young people right at the start of their lives. Yet despite that, the law remains very unclear and limited when it comes to what duties and responsibilities universities have in relation to their often very vulnerable young students. The law in its current form was tested recently. In that case, a claim of negligence failed because the judge found that no relevant duty of care existed.

By contrast, the Government’s response to the petition appears, on the face of it, to have a rather different expectation of universities. They said:

“Higher Education providers do have a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution and, in carrying out these services, they are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students.”

They go on:

“This can be summed up as providers owing a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.”

That statement is too simplistic and cites no legal authorities whatever in support. Lawyers have argued that the general duty does exist, but those arguments have thus far been unsuccessful.

In answer to a question asked in March this year by the shadow Minister for Higher Education, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), the Government conceded:

“The existence and application of a duty of care between HE providers and students has not been widely tested in the courts.”

Therefore, at this moment, beyond certain very specific circumstances, the law offers only limited protection to students who suffer harm because of their university’s negligence.

This issue affects a significant and very vulnerable section of our society. University students are adults in law, but they are often living away from home for the first time in their lives. They are sometimes located great distances away from their established support structures of school and home. University students are not covered by the laws that protect students at primary and secondary school, nor do they receive the legal protections afforded by employment. There is a gap: far too many students fall through the middle and do not receive the protections to which they are entitled.

Some progress has been made on prevention in recent years. Universities UK represents 141 universities and, working together with agencies such as Papyrus, is improving access to mental health and pastoral support for students, but such support is not consistent throughout the country. Universities UK concedes that one in four students have a diagnosed mental health issue and one third are recognised as having poor wellbeing. It says that the university mental health charter, created by Student Minds in partnership with UUK and others, provides a framework for institutions to adopt.

Universities UK says that the framework would enable a whole-university approach for safe, inclusive, healthy settings for students, but there is no requirement for universities to sign the charter. There are at least 285 higher education providers in the UK and, of the 141 universities that UUK represents, only 61 have signed the charter. Only five have been awarded charter status and none have thus far achieved the two higher levels of accreditation: merit and distinction.

Although some universities are clearly raising their game, others are lagging behind, creating something of a care and wellbeing lottery for students in the UCAS application process. A statutory duty of care would set the bar to level up that standard—a standard that requires all higher education providers to do what might reasonably be expected, while maintaining their autonomy in deciding exactly how that will achieved. That is the backbone of this debate.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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I apologise for not being able to stay for the whole debate; I must be on the Front Bench in the main Chamber soon.

As a Bristol MP, I have been in touch with the vice-chancellors of the University of the West of England—who is the national lead on mental health—and of the University of Bristol to try to get assurances that they are taking this issue seriously. I believe they are. The hon. Member made an important point: the focus is very much on the big universities, but we also need to work with other further education establishments and those that are less in the spotlight. Does the hon. Member think that the statutory duty of care is the way to bring those organisations onboard? Or is there another way to do that?

Helen Grant Portrait Mrs Grant
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I certainly do. As I said a few moments ago, a statutory duty of care would level up the standard of care in the way that our young people deserve. Obviously, we must put in place all the other suicide prevention measures, but they are not working. They are insufficient. We need both. We need more. We need clarity in the law, and we certainly do not have that at the moment.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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I apologise that my Select Committee duties prevented me from being here at the start of the debate. The hon. Member mentioned that one in four students say they have mental health challenges. A more transparent framework or a duty would surely give students the confidence to come forward to the university to seek help and support. I can imagine that when they are facing mental health challenges they often feel there is nobody to turn to, and they do not necessarily have confidence in those institutions. A duty of care would surely help them to come forward and share their struggles.

Helen Grant Portrait Mrs Grant
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A statutory duty of care would certainly help, but we need everything—it is about having a multi-pronged approach, which I will come to in a moment.

Suicide is a complicated issue, and preventing it requires many different approaches. In that respect, let me say something about two other important and related issues. The first issue is combating stigma. People who struggle with suicidal thoughts may be afraid of being judged or stigmatised if they talk about their feelings. Some pastoral carers have concerns about talking to people they know may be at risk for fear of increasing the likelihood of suicide. Contrary to that, research has shown that asking direct questions about suicide can help to save lives.

The second issue is about learning from tragedy to help us to prevent future deaths, which is precisely what Hilary Grime and her colleagues at the Lived Experience for Action Right Now Network are striving to achieve. It was their petition that brought this debate to the House of Commons. Through a presentation in the Jubilee Room in April, they educated many MPs about the need for a statutory duty of care. They are helping us to learn and giving us the chance to make a change through the loss of their children: Natasha, Kieran, Stefan, Mared, Ceara, Phoebe, Jared, Lucy, Oskar, Harry, Romily, Kim, Cameron, Daniel, Rory, Ben, Harrison, Alexandra, Theo, Charlie and Naseeb.

In conclusion, the decision of Judge Ralton in Abrahart v. University of Bristol is being appealed in the High Court. That will allow the arguments surrounding the existence of a common-law duty of care to be looked at again, although judges are often reluctant to confirm the existence of a duty where none has existed before. The introduction of a statutory duty of care would, however, remove the current uncertainty and ambiguity. It would allow all stakeholders to contribute to the development of a set of legal norms that would strike the right balance between students and their teaching institutions. It would also bring our law into line with other common-law jurisdictions, such as the USA and Australia.

I have written to and spoken with the Minister, on behalf of my constituent, making the case for a statutory duty of care. In his written response to me, dated 25 November 2022, the Minister set out in detail the policies, practices, frameworks, champions and data that exist in relation to suicide prevention. The response failed, though, to address the uncertainty surrounding the duty of care for students in higher education. I hope that today’s debate will allow the Minister to listen carefully to the arguments and look again at this vital issue.