Higher Education Students: Statutory Duty of Care Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Education

Higher Education Students: Statutory Duty of Care

Kit Malthouse Excerpts
Monday 5th June 2023

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I do not believe that this subject requires a long speech, because for me the situation and the decision by the Government seem to be relatively clear. It became distressingly clear to me when my constituents Valerie and Andrew Hayter came to see me in my constituency surgery in Andover one Friday morning to talk about the loss of their son Alex, who, just a couple of years before, had taken his own life following unexpected disengagement from his university course and exams over the course of one summer. Their view was that but for a simple phone call, a gentle nudge or a small human connection by somebody at the university, the life of their son may well have been saved, yet it became clear from their account of the events that unfolded that that was not an approach that would get much purchase in universities.

Whatever we may think of the current state of universities —many of them do a fantastic job—they have become much more transactional places. There was a time, certainly when I was at university, when they referred to themselves as communities—when they were there for not just academic growth, but spiritual and emotional growth. They recognised that they were taking on young people who were adults legally, but perhaps not fully formed adults emotionally, and who, at the tail end of adolescence, would be going through particular difficulties and a developmental stage in their mental acuity that required a particular kind of attention and pastoral care.

We see that change in universities in their retreat into defence when these horrible, tragic events happen. The defence is that students are adults—a legal defence. Or there is a bureaucratic defence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) mentioned, about GDPR. There is never a mention of basic kindness or human connection, or—an overused phrase sometimes— a common sense, or even a sense of morality about what somebody might do when they notice behaviour that might give a family cause for concern.

The university sector also retreats into the notion that, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, suicides in universities are lower than the average. Well, so they should be. This is a supervised or semi-supervised environment where there is supposed to be a latticework of support and care, and where young people are given the space to grow emotionally as much as intellectually. The fact that the rate is lower is not a matter for congratulation or celebration; it is actually a notion that they are not doing quite as well as they should be. The case for a general duty of care is a strong one, particularly where we have a sector that is retreating into, as I say, these bureaucratic and process-driven arguments and that we all think has a responsibility to our young people beyond just teaching them.

The Government have said that they believe a duty of care already exists in common law. That will be decided by the courts, but more than one coroner believes that that is not the case and, most importantly, far too many parents believe that that is not the case. Far too many families have seen and felt in their own lives that that is not the case, and they often feel that they are dealt with in a casual or offhand way. They feel that their kids are not disposable and should not be forgotten, and that there should be some change to prevent anybody else from going through what they have gone through.

There has been much talk about mental health support in the debate and more widely. To be fair, universities have done a lot, and the Government have spent a lot and have given money to universities specifically for mental health support and care. The NUS has done some work, as have others. I hope the Minister will agree that the best and most basic mental health support that people can get is a loving family. The idea that families should be excluded from the process, particularly when their child is exhibiting distressing, alarming or even unusual behaviour in a university seems inhumane and immoral. I ask the Minister in his summing up, because he is a thoughtful and independently minded man, to depart from the Government line hitherto and think again about this notion. We have imposed an awful lot on universities, given their new freedoms and the fact that they have often become big businesses. We have an Office for Students to guarantee the quality of courses, and we have just imposed legislation on them to guarantee free speech. Why would we not impose something on them to try to guarantee the safety and lives of our children?