[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee on 16 May 2023, on a statutory duty of care for higher education students, HC 1343; and summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee, on a statutory duty of care for higher education students, reported to the House on 26 May, HC 73.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 622847, relating to a statutory duty of care for higher education students.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I thank the 128,292 petitioners and pay tribute to the lead petitioner, Lee Fryatt, who lost his son Daniel to suicide, all others who have given evidence or whom my office has spoken to—Ben West, Hilary Grime, James Murray, Maggie Abrahart, Mark Shanahan, Hema Patel and Alice Armstrong—and all those who have lost loved ones and been on a long journey not just to get to today’s debate but to take on the universities and the Government with one focus: preventing any more young people from taking their lives.
Through my work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys, and in the many debates that I have led as a member of the Petitions Committee, I have spent much time listening to family members who have lost loved ones by suicide—heartbreaking stories, every single one of them. As Ged Flynn from PAPYRUS stated, the longer he works in this field the more he realises
“how complex suicide is. The contributory factors to suicide are so many and so varied…but there are commonalities in those stories that we must learn from.”
The question today is whether one of the lessons is to put in place a statutory duty of care for students in higher education.
I will run through some core statistics, which do not make for good reading. Between the 2017 and 2020 academic years, 202 male students died by suicide, as did 117 female students—319 lives that could have been saved. The Petitions Committee ran an online survey asking petitioners about their experience of poor mental health at university, the support provided by their university, and their views on introducing a statutory duty of care for higher education students. More than 1,500 people replied. The figures showed that an extremely large percentage of the current and former students had suffered, or were suffering, with their mental health. Around half felt that their university was very unsupportive and did not feel that they could discuss the issue with their tutor. For institutions that exist to work with young people, that is poor.
I, too, congratulate all the petitioners on securing today’s debate. My hon. Friend is outlining some stark statistics. Mental health in higher education has become a lot more complex and serious following the covid pandemic, which revealed quite a lot about the mental health of students. Does he agree that it is probably time to review the law in this area to ensure that we have everything in place to protect students, as more of their mental health problems become apparent?
I could not agree more, and Members will hear more of my thoughts on that.
Returning to the survey, parents and guardians were equally disappointed, with 79% stating that they disagreed or strongly disagreed that the current mental health support for university students is adequate. A large percentage also thought that if their child were showing signs of mental health issues, the university would be in contact. We will learn later that that is not always the case.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when a student at university attempts suicide their parents should be told? I find it inexplicable that that is currently not the case. Secondly, I understand that Universities UK has drawn up suicide prevention guidelines, which the vice-chancellor of Bristol was talking about this morning. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as an interim measure, those should be made compulsory for universities, rather than optional?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about not contacting parents, I believe that some universities cite GDPR as an issue. In my experience, safeguarding always overrides GDPR, so that is definitely something we need to look at. I will speak later about the guidance, but I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution.
Overall, the survey showed that support for students varies significantly across the 200-plus universities and higher education settings. Both students and parents expect better. I have heard terrible stories, including of students being told by email that they are being asked to leave their university; zero marks being given without explanation and with no one available to talk to immediately; emergency contact numbers not being called in times of crisis, as the right hon. Gentleman just mentioned; deaths being announced before family members can tell their wider family; universities deleting student records in advance of any coroner’s inquest; data protection laws being used wrongly so as not to tell parents; and a general lack of training. Given that students are paying £9,000 a year to universities, is that acceptable?
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. As many Members know, this subject is incredibly difficult for me to talk about, given my personal experiences, but I would like to highlight the case of one of my constituents. Mared Foulkes from Menai Bridge was in her second year of studying pharmacy at Cardiff University when she received an automated email from the university, hours before her death, saying that she had failed her exams and would not be moving on to her third year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely unacceptable?
I know how important the subject is to my hon. Friend, and I agree that that kind of behaviour from universities is appalling. Their entire being is about young people. They really need to do better.
The petitioners call for a statutory duty of care, akin to employers’ duty of care for employees, to protect them from foreseeable harm caused by either direct or indirect actions. Parents said that a duty of care would improve communication with families—as we have seen, that definitely needs to happen—take into account extenuating circumstances and the need to offer further support; lead to better availability of support services and staff training; mean the recording and investigation of student suicides, including the publication of student suicide rates; and give consistency of service at all universities.
The Government say that universities have a general duty of care. There is a case in which that was found not to be the case, but because there is an appeal in respect of the case, it is not possible to discuss the details any further. Universities UK has said that they have a moral and ethical duty, while also suggesting that there could be some kind of mandatory excellence framework, as it believes in continuous development.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. I want to speak out on behalf of my constituent Esther Brennan, who is here with us today. Esther lost her son Theo. Theo went through all the processes that the university put in place, and the university failed him at every level. At the inquest, the university claimed that it did not have a duty of care, and the inquest found in favour of that position. That cannot be acceptable. We cannot have this uncertainty. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need clarity on this issue?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her contribution. I send my sincere condolences to her constituent’s family. It is a terrible issue and a terrible blow to the family. I will come to her point later.
AMOSSHE, the student services organisation, recently stated that it did not believe that an additional statutory duty of care
“is the right approach for embedding the wider improvements”
that it is committed to
“and that have been identified by bereaved families and the LEARN Network.”
PAPYRUS agrees that there should not be a statutory duty of care and that a more societal approach should be taken instead.
Further questions that have arisen from my research include the following. Why are all universities not implementing the trusted contact system and then using it? Why have all universities not signed up to the “Suicide-safer universities” guidance and the university mental health charter? Why are universities still carrying out bad practice such as telling students they must leave by email, without any thought of the inevitable emotional and mental impact? 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?
The hon. Member is making an impassioned speech. My constituent Anu Abraham was on placement as part of a three-year course with Leeds Trinity University, training to be a police officer. Not only was he failed by the police, but he was failed by his university. Sadly, he took his own life in March this year due to the bullying that he was subjected to at his first placement, at Halifax police station. Far too often, calls of this nature are put to one side. As the hon. Member has said, a duty of care is needed, but does he agree with me and Anu’s family that we must ultimately learn from these cases? If we do not have a duty of care, we certainly need a much more holistic view to ensure that parents are fully understanding. Ultimately, parents put their trust in these institutions to look after their children, and that trust needs to be repaid with responsibility.
Again, I send my condolences to the family of the hon. Member’s constituent. In this debate, we need to discuss that exact issue. The petitioners want a statutory duty of care, but there are many voices to be heard. I hope that we will have a good debate and that the Government will learn from it.
I hope this debate, with the facts that I have listed and the questions I have raised, will help all stakeholders come to the right decision for our young people. Before I finish, I want to state how I see the issue. Too many young people are taking their lives, but why? I believe we need to build more resilience in our young people. Life is tough, but it has always been tough—it is just tough in different ways. Work needs to be done to see how we can better prepare all our young people in the years before they go to university.
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. We legislate in this place when things go wrong out there, so please sort out what you are doing and get your heads together. If signing up to the guidance and the charter is a good step, which I believe it is, then please get on with it—no exceptions. You are meant to be the brains of this country. We should not have to debate this issue here. You are doing some good work, but you could be doing so much better.
I say to our Government: a statutory duty of care would ensure that all parties knew where they stood, but until we have one, please use the levers you have to make the universities do better at helping our young people. If they do not, do what the petitioners ask and legislate so that they must.
I say to parents: your child might think they are grown up—mine certainly do, and many in this place keep telling me that they are; the Opposition want to give them the vote at 16—but you know and I know that even at 23 they still have a lot of growing up to do. We all need our parents at some point. So, parents, please make that call, send that text or go and see them, even when they say no. Tell them that you love them. They need it more than you know. We all need support, however old we are. I know those that I have spoken to have tried, but everybody needs to. Everyone who has lost someone wishes they could still make that call, so do it now—and every week and every day if you think it is necessary.
As a result of having led these debates, I constantly ask my own children whether they are okay. They call me daft; they laugh at me for asking. I do not care—I ask, and tell them I love them, because I do. I say this to every young person out there: nothing is that bad. Trust me; I have heard it all in this place. No matter how bad things are, there is always someone to help, but you must ask. You are all precious and you are all priceless. There is only one of you. So ask. Make that call. Confess that issue. Tell someone that you are struggling. It does not matter what it is; it only matters that you ask.
Finally, I am sure that I speak for everyone here when I say that each suicide is a tragedy that will haunt family and friends for the rest of their lives. Although it is a great thing that, as the Office for National Statistics tells us, the suicide rate per head of population has declined by 28% since 1981, that is no comfort to those who have lost a loved one. Let us all play our part and do what we can in this place and in the world outside as we go about our daily business. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ thoughts and the Minister’s response.
Order. I remind Members that the petition being debated relates indirectly to a claim against a higher education institution. The legal case is ongoing and therefore sub judice. Mr Speaker has agreed to my exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of resolutions on matters sub judice to allow limited reference to the findings of the county court in that case. However, I ask that Members do not refer to details of the case or the conduct of the case, including by attributing particular arguments to the parties involved therein. I remind Members who wish to speak to bob, as there are quite of a lot of you.
It is a pleasure to be called first and to contribute under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on his contribution in opening the debate. Like him, I thank everyone who signed the petition, which ensured that we had this discussion today. I particularly thank the bereaved parents who have driven the campaign. I cannot imagine anything worse than their loss—sending a child off to university, full of expectations and hope, as Lee Fryatt described at the pre-debate evidence session, and then finding that that journey and excitement ends in the tragedy of suicide.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group for students, which was set up to provide a voice in this place for those studying in further and higher education, and I have followed the issue very carefully. I was pleased to join the recent LEARN Network event in Parliament and listen to all the powerful personal testimonies, particularly those from parents. I was also pleased to be invited to join the Petitions Committee’s pre-debate evidence session, and I have read the transcript of the part of the session that I missed. All that I have learned convinces me that today’s debate is necessary.
The number of suicides in this country is mercifully low, and it is much lower among students—across all age groups—than among the population as a whole, but even one suicide is clearly one too many. As Ged Flynn from PAPYRUS emphasised at the pre-debate session, suicide is very much a preventable death. That should focus us acutely. Everything must be done to save lives, and the action that we take makes the crucial difference. 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.
At this stage, we need to recognise that not all of the 2.8 million students in this country fit the conventional model of young people going away from home to university. A quarter of them are commuter students travelling from home. Half a million are over 30, and half a million are part time. Many are postgraduates, international students and so on. However, the focus of much of this discussion has been on that younger cohort, and we need to recognise that last year, 25% of 17 to 19-year-olds in England were experiencing poor mental health. That figure is growing as a result of many factors, and it is up significantly from 10% six years ago.
One thing that shocked me on becoming an MP 13 years ago, was that when I went into schools, as I do every year, to talk to young people about what they think my priorities should be as their Member of Parliament, I was told that access to mental health support was their top issue. That has been repeated almost every year. Those young people emphasise the inadequacy of the support available to them. There is too little in schools, and where schools are acting to provide support, money is diverted from teaching budgets. It takes too long to get a first appointment with child and adolescent mental health services after referral, and even when they get into CAMHS, there is too little treatment because of the way the sessions are capped. It is therefore probably no surprise that so many students are entering university with mental health problems. UCAS estimates that over 70,000 students enter higher education every year with a mental health condition, but around half of them told UCAS in a survey that they had not shared that information prior to entry.
Universities have responded. I think they have been learning, but not consistently and perhaps not quickly enough. In 2017, the mentally healthy universities framework was launched. That formed the basis of the university mental health charter created by Student Minds, with whom the all-party parliamentary group has worked. The charter framework rightly provides an approach of improving the support available to students and addressing the determinants of student wellbeing, including aspects of the academic process that might have an impact on wellbeing, such as assessment, fitness to study and dismissal. The problem is that not every university has signed up, and clearly more should be done to ensure that they do.
The responsibility does not just fall on universities. In the pre-debate evidence session, National Union of Students vice-president Chloe Field said that
“universities have become almost the only port of call for students if they are suffering from mental health, because of the failures of the NHS and the long waiting lists that the NHS has. Students struggle to get through to that NHS service. There is a huge number of students who try to access that support.”
She also pointed out the many factors that were exacerbating poor mental health, including academic and financial pressures. Because of the financial pressures, people face difficulties in juggling so many jobs just to see themselves through university, as well as meeting their academic commitments.
I highlight all of that not to diminish the responsibility of universities, but to illustrate—as we were told several times in the pre-debate session—that there is no silver bullet. What more could universities do? Mark Shanahan made a really useful contribution. His son took his life in Sheffield, in one of the two universities that I am pleased to represent. He drew a comparison between the teaching excellence framework and the research excellence framework, which provide a disciplined approach of expectations on universities, and he asked why we do not have a student support excellence framework. Professor Steve West, who gave evidence on behalf of Universities UK, took up that point, acknowledging that there was not sufficient and consistent best practice, but we should not talk about this as best practice; we should be talking about it as basic practice across universities.
I am not convinced that a duty of care will do the job that those advocating it want, and it may indeed have unintended consequences, but there need to be clear expectations—not encouragement, not a willingness to do well, but clear expectations—on universities to up their game consistently across the sector. I hope that when the Minister winds up the debate, he will set out how he thinks that might be delivered; I am conscious that he has already done that to a significant degree in the letter he circulated to us today. Clearly, it should not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but there should be consistent expectations.
I also hope that in winding up, the Minister will recognise—even if it is not his responsibility—the other factors contributing to the mental health crisis. Will he share with us what he will do with colleagues across Government, particularly Health Ministers and, in this context, probably the Chancellor, to make available the sort of support working alongside universities that is really necessary to tackle this crisis? As I said, I do not think that there is a one-size-fits-all solution, given the diversity of our student population, but there must be a real commitment from Government, from the sector and from all of us in this place to reducing student suicide.
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?
I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for leading the debate. I thank the 25 families behind the petition, which has well over 100,000 signatures, and express my sincere condolences to all of them. I extend my condolences to Lee, Hilary, Mark and Ben and thank them for their appearance before the Petitions Committee last month.
University should be an exciting, life-changing experience for young people and their families; it should not be life-ending. No parent should ever be told that their child has taken their own life—not ever. 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. Last year, a senior judge ruled that no relevant common law duty of care existed in a case from a bereaved family against a university. We could say that a general duty of care does not even exist, and that needs to change. The petition that we are debating is the right response: it is fair, just and reasonable, and it has my support. A general duty of care is too vague and does not provide clarity or consistency. A statutory duty of care would change that and give students and their parents peace of mind that they were protected.
The Minister said that legislation might have unintended consequences at this time. What does he think those will be? While he is here, I want to put on the record the wider mental health crisis among students. As we have heard, the NUS has found that a third of students feel that the cost of living crisis is having a major impact on their mental health. There has been a mental health crisis at universities for over a decade now. To make matters worse, those in crisis have to wait ridiculous lengths of time to see a professional. I say to the Minister: please do the right thing—ignore the advice of your Department and implement the measure in this petition. It is sensible, justifiable and it will save lives. We owe that to those who have lost their lives.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for compellingly introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
I first became aware of today’s debate by chance, just a few hours after meeting with my constituents, the parents of Naseeb Chuhan, who took his own life at the end of his first year at Leeds Beckett University in June 2016. They have campaigned tirelessly ever since to secure a statutory legal duty of care for students in higher education. I can appreciate that this is a complex matter—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) set out some of the reasons why—but it is on their behalf that I want to support the aspirations of the petition, and to do so by sharing a little of Naseeb’s story.
There were clear signs that Naseeb was struggling. At the time of his death he had eight outstanding pieces of university work, yet it appears that no welfare checks were made to follow up on his missing work or his attendance issues. The day before his death, he visited the university wellbeing service, where he was honest and up-front about how he was feeling. Naseeb’s parents have looked into that interaction and are clear that, in their view, the service failed to adequately identify, assess and respond to risk.
Following Naseeb’s death, his parents sought to make a complaint about the university’s handling of his case and its lack of effective pastoral care and support for him. They discovered that complaints by parents are not routinely accepted by universities without the consent of the student concerned. In fact, this is discretionary, despite consent being impossible in such tragic circumstances as the student has already passed away. That is an absurd position for grieving parents to be in and is a result of the lack of regulation in this area. There simply must be a statutory duty of care placed on universities to support their students properly with any mental health issues that they face—a duty of care that already exists for universities regarding their staff and for under-18s in higher education.
Naseeb’s parents have since produced a report, which I have circulated to a number of parliamentary colleagues, calling for a series of changes in the light of Naseeb’s death. Specifically regarding universities and student wellbeing services, the report makes the following recommendations: university and student wellbeing services should be accountable, with an independent complaints procedure accessible by parents automatically if a student dies; universities should monitor and follow up student attendance and performance to check on the wellbeing of anybody who is struggling with these issues; university staff should be trained in suicide risk and prevention, along with mental health; students should have a clear pathway if in academic crisis; universities should work with coroners and keep records about student suicide; student wellbeing services should have training on suicide and keep appropriate records.
Those recommendations should not be too much to ask for. They are reasonable and proportionate and would almost certainly fall within the requirements of a statutory legal duty of care of universities to their students, which I why I am so supportive of the petition that we are here to debate.
I note the Government’s response to the petition, but I must say that, much like my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), I find myself considerably frustrated by the response that was submitted along with the details of the petition and today’s debate. The response appears to fall somewhere between the “nothing to see here” approach—that this would be a disproportionate response as suicide rates among students are relatively low—and the “why regulate when this happens anyway?” argument.
If it happens anyway, what is the problem with regulating existing practice? Of course, in Naseeb’s case—and, from talking to other parents in similar situations, I suspect in the case of many students—this is not what happens in practice. It is for that reason that I hope the Minister will listen to today’s debate and respond positively to the arguments made. For that reason also, I thank everybody who signed the petition, and pay tribute to Naseeb’s parents for their campaigning in the face of such devastating personal tragedy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for opening the debate and for his tireless work supporting the mental health of men and boys. I also thank the 394 petitioners from my constituency of Guildford, which is home to the excellent University of Surrey. I should declare that my eldest child is currently a university student.
Although I recognise that universities are autonomous, the petitioners are—reasonably, in my view—calling for a statutory legal duty of care for students in higher education. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for sending a detailed letter to all colleagues in the House about why the Government believe the statutory duty is not required, and I am sure he will go into more detail on the Government’s position. I also acknowledge the significant funding that has gone into the university sector to support mental health, and the Government’s drive in setting a target for universities to sign up to the mental health charter by September 2024.
I am grateful that the Government have stated that if they do not see a proactive and positive response from the sector, they will ask the Office for Students to explore targeted regulation to protect students’ interests. The Government are also right to be wary of unintended consequences, but the main thrust of their argument seems to be that we must wait so as not to stifle innovative projects. I love innovation, and universities are particularly well placed to innovate, but I am afraid that it is too late for the families in the Public Gallery who have lost a loved one to suicide while they were at university, and it will be cold comfort to families who will lose someone in the coming months and years while the Government wait.
From both reading the evidence given to the Petitions Committee and my conversation last week with Dr Mark Shanahan, who is a politics professor at the University of Surrey in my constituency and who is here today with his wife Jacquie, having tragically lost their son Rory, it is clear to me that the families are not looking to replace the work that has already gone into the mental health support for our young people. They are not trying to reinvent the wheel, nor do they wish to seek retribution. They simply wish to fill a legal gap—an anomaly.
My understanding is that there is a duty of care in place for further education students, no matter their age. We have worked so hard to bring parity of esteem between FE and HE, and for society to recognise the value of apprenticeships in particular. It is a shame for our world-leading university sector that any parent listening to the debate could deduce that they are more likely to be contacted by the provider of their family member’s education when there is a mental health crisis if they choose further education.
Not all 18-year-olds are ready for university, and not all 18-year-olds should go to university. Some 18-year-olds and their families have no idea that they are neurodiverse until they go to university, such has been the level of support and coping mechanisms in place until then, and we all know that the prefrontal cortex does not fully mature until about the age of 25. Potential changes in diet, misuse of alcohol and/or drugs, and sleep disturbance or deprivation can wreak havoc on the neurotypical. For the neurodiverse, they can spike anxiety and a downward spiral very quickly. There are no protections for such students if they are undiagnosed.
As a constituency MP, I have had the sadness of having to support parents of university-age children who have had psychotic episodes and have had to be hospitalised. It is horrific. Once someone knows their child is mentally not well, they never stop worrying that they have just had their last phone call or text message from them. When they cannot be contacted, that worry escalates. It does not ever really disappear over that child’s lifetime—and I speak from personal experience.
As has been mentioned, there have been instances of misunderstanding of GDPR that have led to no contact with families. The university sector clearly needs to improve its understanding of how to use GDPR properly. Each young person going to university could have an automatic nominated point of contact in case there is a mental health concern or crisis. It may not need to be a family member, and could be a trusted friend. The fundamental question is: why should parents be contacted on the death of their child, but not before?
Finally, I thank Dr Mark Shanahan for telling me about Rory and the desperately sad circumstances around his suicide, and how it was dealt with by the university in question. It is cold that universities simply wait for a medical “fit for study” notice so that they can issue an invoice for fees. It is a shame that students taking a break are often hounded about when they will return to complete their studies. It is not right, and we need to get it right.
All the families in the Public Gallery cannot bring back their loved ones, but they dearly wish to prevent other families from suffering needlessly. I thank them for their selfless battle for others. The Government need to look again at how they can work with the Office for Students to plug this legal gap. If the universities do not come to the table and explore targeted regulation, anything else is no more than hand-holding, a cup of tea and warm words. That is not enough.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Robert. I pay tribute to the 128,000-plus people who signed the petition, many of whom have their own very personal stories. I say a big thank you to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for making a very passionate, thoughtful and human speech at the beginning of the debate. Indeed, I found everybody’s contributions personally moving, and I am sure that people in the Public Gallery also thought so.
In paying tribute to all those people who signed the petition, and in particular those who had a very personal reason for doing so, it is my privilege and honour to speak in memory of Oskar Carrick, who died by suicide two years ago. His parents, Maxine and Gary, are with us today. As the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) said just now, everybody involved in this campaign is immensely selfless. They have lost somebody utterly dear to them, they have experienced—are experiencing—appalling grief, and yet their thought is, “What can we do to protect other families from the same thing?” We all owe them a huge debt of thanks for their care for those who come next and for their determination to ensure that practical lessons are learnt.
Oskar had made an attempt on his life, and despite the fact that both he and his parents had consented for the university to disclose information, that incident was not passed on to Oskar’s mum and dad. Whether that was because of GDPR concerns—a sense of a person’s right as an adult to privacy—or whatever else, that was massively wrong-headed. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) pointed out, a huge proportion of students at university are not 18 to 22-year-olds, but whatever their age they are potentially vulnerable, and we all need to have somebody who cares for us on the outside. The thought that a higher education institution of any kind should have any hesitation about sharing such vital information with parents and loved ones—because of concerns about legality, form, traditions, GDPR or whatever it might be—is clearly wrong and it is important that universities understand that. I hope that the Minister will be clear that parents and loved ones should be informed when there is a legitimate concern about somebody’s mental health.
The simple ask of the petition is that a statutory duty of care should be placed on universities, and having worked in higher education for 13 years before I entered this place, I understand why there is some pushback. But universities are wrong to push back. The truth of the matter is that students are not regular customers. As other hon. Members have mentioned, universities have a duty of care to their staff and yet apparently not, in the same distinct way, to their students. Students are not the same as regular customers for obvious reasons. Despite the fact that many do not fit the typical demographic, the majority are young people living away from home for the first time, and of course they have recently gone through, as we all have, the enormous disruption of covid and all that went along with it.
We are also in a time when it feels like there is a great unkindness in the discourse. In the ’60s, Andy Warhol said that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. He did not know the half of it. In this future, everybody is famous all the time on social media. People like us—Members of Parliament—are meant to deal with that professionally; we are meant to be resilient. But human beings who are not Members of Parliament—young people, whatever age they are—do not have the resilience to cope with that constant judgment and exposure because of the society we are in. Of course universities need to take their duty of care seriously: it should be statutorily placed on them.
I have two kids at university. I also spent 13 years working in higher education before I entered this place. Before that even, I was the president of Newcastle University’s students’ union. It was a different kettle of fish in those days, not least because there were fewer students. People did not pay fees; there was not even the concept of students being customers. Universities were smaller. It was less possible to disappear in the late 1980s and early 1990s as it is today. Universities are far larger now, with cities full of students from more than one institution. The ability to get lost is that much greater. The need for us step in and take care in a practical way is much greater than it was then.
It is not all down to universities. This is not me castigating the entire higher education sector for its failures. I am reminding them of the fact that they have responsibilities—some legal, some moral. Today we are talking about potentially making the moral responsibilities also legal. As has been mentioned, by the time a person who has a mental health condition, or is perhaps developing one, goes to university, they may well have been let down for several years before they get there.
The simple fact is that universities are very often filling the gap that child and adolescent mental health services have not been able to fill due to a lack of funding for years before. Today we have a society where we talk about mental health more than we did. That is a good thing, and there is less of a stigma, but we are a society that breeds worse mental health than any other in human history.
We talk about parity of esteem and treating mental and physical health the same, but we do not. If an 18-year-old or 19-year-old playing rugby, cricket or football or running or whatever breaks their leg on a weekend, they are straight into the system there and then. The healing begins that day. If something not visible to the eye were to break in that person, even if it happened to them when they were 14, they may wait months and months for a first appointment to be seen. This is something we all own and all have responsibility to, not just the higher education sector.
We have to learn the lesson of the importance of building resilience in youth, not just in dealing with poor mental health, but building good mental health. I go running not because I am ill, but to try to fight off middle age and make sure I stay relatively well. The same goes for our mental health. We must look after our mental health before we become unwell. Young people need help to do that. That is why outdoor education is so important and should be integrated in residentials and into every child’s learning experience at primary and secondary schools, so that that level of resilience is built for when tough times come.
As has been said, suicide is preventable. In many ways, that is the most heart-breaking thing about it. I know that from personal experience of a loved one of mine who passed away in that way—thinking of whether there is something that I or any of us could have done. I want to pay tribute to PAPYRUS, which does wonderful work in engaging with and supporting suicide prevention, but also to the three dads—Mike, Andy and Tim—who drew attention to their own plight, having lost their daughters Beth, Sophie and Emily. They tried to make sure, like the families here today, that others do not experience what they did by recognising the importance of trying to build suicide prevention into the curriculum.
All of us must take on that responsibility. This debate is focused on the petition, which asks higher education institutions to step up to the plate and accept that duty of care, and indeed for the Government to impose it on them. We entrust our young people into the hands of august higher education institutions. It is so important that as we entrust our young people—predominantly, young people—into institutions’ care, they respond by providing care and kindness, paying attention to their needs, not letting anybody fall between the cracks and making sure that people’s loved ones back home are always kept informed of how they are. That way they can intervene and prevent appalling tragedies occurring again in the future.
Throughout this debate we have heard tragic stories: it is clear that the problem affects many families up and down the country. I am afraid I am going to add the case of Harry Armstrong Evans, whose parents, Alice and Rupert, have been running a campaign in his memory. He came from Launceston in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann). Because my constituency has the only university in Cornwall, the parents also approached me since they felt this was important.
Harry had had an exceptional set of exam results during his time at the University of Exeter, but he went from being a star pupil to having an unexpectedly set of poor results in his final year. He was in anguish and tried to reach out to his course tutor to discuss it, but it was during half term and the course tutor was not around. As a result of that anguish, Harry took his life. The great tragedy is that his parents were not aware that there was a problem. They had no reason to expect that Harry would have unexpectedly bad results in his final year and saw no reason to reach out to him to say, “Don’t worry if it does not go well in the final year”, or to try to broach that conversation with him.
Some colleagues have said this afternoon that suicide is preventable. It is important to recognise that although it is preventable, that does not mean that there is someone else to blame. When people experience a suicide in the family or among friends or work colleagues, there is always a sense that if only they had known that there had been a problem, they would have reached out to somebody to tell them that there was no need to worry or to be concerned.
It is important that we are clear with universities. When we say that there is a case for a statutory duty of care, we are not necessarily saying that they are to blame for everything that might happen. We are all just collectively saying that there are things that we could do differently, that suicide is preventable, and that if we work on getting things right, we can reduce the number of such tragedies, for suicide is always a terrible tragedy.
Following the death of Harry, Alice and Rupert launched their own parliamentary petition to call for something that they have called Harry’s law. This focuses specifically on the issue of requiring universities to at the very least publish the suicide data that they have. It would simply require that where coroners inform universities that there has been a suicide of an enrolled student, that university has to declare it and make that information public. If the Minister is resistant to going all the way to having a statutory duty of care, or if he is advised by departmental lawyers that such a step is unnecessary and does not add much, at the very least could we require universities to publish the suicide data? If they are required to publish that, I think it likely that they would pay much more attention to the work that they do and the pastoral care that they provide to avoid such terrible tragedies.
Alice and Rupert Armstrong Evans have also proposed that if a university is performing particularly badly and has a highly disproportionate number of suicides, they should potentially be placed in special measures or be given the support that they need to make sure that they get in place the right kind of pastoral care. If the Minister is not willing to support a statutory duty of care for universities, I hope he will look at what can be done to improve the transparency of data and require universities to publish that as a first step, and then perhaps a statutory duty of care could be considered at a future date.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I express my particular thanks to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for his impassioned speech. I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate, all of whom I believe have spoken with a degree of respect and understanding that I can only hope members of the LEARN Network will feel does justice to their campaign. This debate is the culmination of the LEARN Network’s tireless work. The ability for members of the group to turn their grief into such a formidable and effective political campaign is remarkable and to be commended. I thank all those who signed the petition.
In terms of the LEARN Network, I have had the privilege of meeting many of the parents, most recently at the parliamentary reception. I must say that that event left a lasting mark on me, as well as all my colleagues who attended. The powerful testimonies were incredibly moving, and gave us all cause for reflection. I want to place on record my particular thanks to Gillian Green and Bob and Maggie Abrahart, all three of whom have been instrumental in pushing forward the campaign. I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for her role in sponsoring the parliamentary event and encouraging participation in the comprehensive debate we have had today.
I will turn to what have been very reflective and considered contributions from around the Chamber. As I said, the hon. Member for Don Valley gave a particularly impassioned speech, but I was really disturbed to hear the evidence given by certain colleagues of automated emails being issued by institutions, without any empathy or understanding, and being received cold by students. There is clearly something wrong with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) talked about the wider mental health crisis we have had for over a decade, and the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald talked about a lottery that is perhaps out there in the quality of provision among our higher education providers. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), among others, spoke about how these are all preventable deaths. The right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) spoke about universities—institutions—becoming more transactional places. Not just the academic pressures, but the financial pressures faced by students—whether it be the fees, the maintenance costs or the cost of living—have driven so many to despair, so I agree with him on that particular point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made the point, which I think was a suggestion from his constituent and picked up by the vice-chancellor of UWE, that if we have TEF and REF, why should we not have a support excellence framework? There is real merit in pursuing that as a means of measuring. That is a point that I think has been made around the Chamber today; there is a need to measure and understand the quality of provision among our higher education providers.
First, Sir Robert, there was a delay in my arrival; unfortunately, the trains were not behaving this afternoon. I wanted to make an intervention, particularly given the death of our nephew, Jack, while at the University of York. One of the things we put to the coroner and the university was that in addition to ensuring there was training for all university staff at all levels—not just departmental or front-facing, but all levels involved in the administration—it was important that there should be a named advocate, if not a parent, who can be notified if there are concerns about the mental health of any student. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be a practical way forward?
I thank my hon. Friend. I totally agree, and my condolences to her on her particular experience. I believe that is something that should be introduced as well.
I will come to the powerful testimony and example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western). I was surprised to hear about his constituents’ experience. In many cases across the piece, we have heard of the wellbeing service failing to identity risk, but I was most disturbed by that particularly absurd and impossible situation. It was a totally insensitive situation to put a family in.
I have met many families from the network. Their diversity and number are a painful reminder that no family is immune from the consequences of the mental health crisis that affects many students on campuses today. Every suicide is a tragedy—a death that is preventable. Student suicides are no different from similar tragedies in wider society. They send shockwaves through families, loved ones and communities, and leave lasting impacts. They also represent a failure, whether partial or total, of structures intended to provide support to students in mental distress.
I appreciate the time and money that many universities give to providing mental health support for students and staff, and I am confident that student support services in universities are doing the best they can to support student welfare with the resources they have available. However, the gap between the expectations of students and parents and the reality of mental health provision in universities is far too great. A 2023 survey for The Tab, a student news site, revealed that only 12% of students think that their university handles the issue of student mental health well. Parents responded similarly, with 67% saying that their child had not felt that their university supported them with their mental health. Many have to wait a whole year for access to support; others are granted a maximum of only six sessions over the course of their degree.
As we have heard, demand for services and support is clearly rising, with one in four student respondents to one survey reporting a diagnosed mental health issue. Many of those issues are also starting earlier in students’ lives. The number of accepted home applicants who declared a disability related to their mental health on their UCAS application form increased from around 2,500 in 2011 to almost 22,500 in 2022. We should also not be blind to the effect of recent trends on student mental health, notably the cost of living crisis. Ninety per cent. of students surveyed by the National Union of Students in September 2022 said the rising cost of living had negatively impacted their mental health. It is almost impossible to argue there is not a serious mental health crisis on our campuses. The question, then, becomes what we can do to remedy it and prevent further unnecessary loss of life.
The UK higher education sector, by the unfortunate necessities I have described, needs to be at the forefront of tackling wider trends in mental health problems in society. The right hon. Member for North West Hampshire made that point. It is therefore important for the sector to work in harmony. I welcome UUK’s “Stepchange: Mentally Healthy Universities” framework and welcome the fact that almost all universities have used it to feed into their student mental health policies. In my many visits to higher education providers, I always insist on meeting with students and their representatives, and mental health is a topic I always cover.
It is clear that approaches vary among institutions, but that some have designed comprehensive strategies to ensuring student welfare is central and integrated into the experience. These are centres of excellence whose work I want to see replicated across the piece. Where best practice is well-informed, widely applied, comprehensive and open to constant improvement, I believe the sector can create strong support structures for students. However, I was concerned to read in the transcript of the Petitions Committee evidence session that best practice guidelines were being adopted inconsistently with little accountability. If true, that needs addressing urgently and I implore UUK to investigate it as a matter of priority.
I note that the university mental health charter has been regularly cited. The principles behind it are certainly worthy, but it is somewhat disappointing that fewer than half of universities are signatories. I welcome the Minister’s announcement this morning requiring universities to become signatories by September 2024. While the charter is not a panacea, it sends an important signal to prospective and current students that a university takes its commitments to student welfare seriously. Absent a statutory duty of care, clear, unequivocal statements such as the charter would go a long way in assuaging the concerns that many people have regarding student mental health provision.
With demand for services clearly outstripping provision, however, surely the time has come for more investment in our young people’s mental health. That is why Labour has committed to guaranteeing mental health treatment within a month for all who need it, by recruiting 8,500 new mental health professionals to support 1 million additional people a year. With a particular focus on child mental health, such investment might begin to stem the rising tide of the mental health crisis on campus.
Labour would also prioritise ensuring that universities are far more integrated into local national health service trusts, so that students can readily access services via their campuses and communities. Too often, students feel isolated from those services. I note that the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), announced a similar policy over a year ago, alongside the Department of Health and Social Care, so I would welcome an update on that work all these months on.
In Wales, the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act 2022 requires the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research to ensure that it is satisfied with the effectiveness of the registered tertiary education providers’ arrangements for supporting and promoting the welfare of their students and staff. The point is that, although it is fine to have a charter, it has to be enforced; there has to be an audit of how that charter is being delivered by an institution—the institution cannot just have a charter mark on its wall. Wales is the first country in the UK to introduce such a requirement for higher and further education providers, and to provide for it in legislation. My question to the Minister is: has he considered, or will he consider, a similar approach for the English regulator, the Officer for Students?
It is regrettable that, rather than investigating a similar statutory requirement for England, the Government have spent two years attempting to exacerbate culture war divisions through the passage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023. I would argue that the matter we are discussing is a much higher priority. To that end, I would also be grateful if the Minister provided an update on the work of the student wellbeing champion in promoting good mental health support among higher education providers. In addition, in light of real-terms cuts for student premium and mental health funding for the academic year 2023-24, how confident is he that the Office for Students has adequate funds to promote and encourage good mental health support among providers?
Can the Minister provide an update on the UK mental health charter? What steps is he taking to encourage universities to sign by the recently announced new deadline of September 2024? How will that be audited and who will determine whether higher education providers continue to meet their duties under the charter? Finally, will the Minister provide an update on the roundtable convened by the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Chippenham, in July 2021 on suicide prevention in the higher education sector? I also suggest to the Minister that, if he chose to reconvene that roundtable to include members of the LEARN Network, universities, myself on a cross-party basis, and sector stakeholders and student representatives, we might be well-placed to advance effective policies that enjoy a broad range of support.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for the way he opened the debate. He fairly set out all points of view on this very difficult issue. It has been a deeply emotional debate; we have heard heartrending testimonies from MPs on behalf of their constituents. I hope my remarks will set out some real things that the Government are doing. I will be limited in responding to everyone, because I want to be able to speak to the families here today, and to those watching on BBC Parliament or the internet. I thank Lee Fryatt and the LEARN Network for starting the petition, and all the families. They are rightly calling for students to be better protected when they leave home for the first time for university. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said that the selflessness of the families has been clear. He is exactly right. Theirs is a very important description of what is happening, and what everyone has been through.
I know that many people listening to the debate have had painful first-hand experience of losing bright, capable young people to suicide, and it was an honour to attend the parliamentary event last month to personally hear their testimonies. We owe it to the memories of those young people to collectively take strong and effective action that prevents further tragedies. That, above all else, should be what the Government deliver for them, and since being appointed the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education by the Prime Minister last year I have made it a priority for my Department.
Let me set out what our approach will be. The first point is funding and resourcing vital services. I know that that is a concern of the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). I welcome the constructive way in which he set out his argument. The second point is spreading and implementing best practice, and the third is having clear responsibilities for providers and protection for students.
First, to deliver the determined interventions that are needed we absolutely need the right funding. That is why we invested £3.6 million via the Office for Students to establish Student Space. Since its launch in 2020, nearly 300,000 students across the country have benefited from the free mental health resources and confidential support that that online service offers. We have also asked the Office for Students to distribute £15 million this academic year so that support can be targeted towards students starting university for the first time. That funding will also enable effective partnerships between providers and local NHS services so that students can better navigate the pathways for mental health provision. Those NHS mental health services are receiving record funding through the NHS long-term plan. By March 2024, an additional £2.3 billion per year above 2018-19 levels will go into mental health services in England. As a result, a further 345,000 people under the age of 25 will get the mental health support that they need.
A number of Members talked about the mental health charter, especially the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). It has been acknowledged that the university sector has made some important strides in recent years to develop clear mental health support frameworks, working with charities and experts. The suicide-safer universities framework provides guidance on suicide prevention for university leaders. There is also now postvention best practice on providing compassionate and timely support after a suspected suicide. Building on those foundations, Student Minds developed the university mental health charter, setting out the principles for a whole-university approach to mental health. That includes the need for mental health training relevant to the role of individual staff—an issue that I know the LEARN Network has raised.
The associated charter programme is not a panacea but a process—one that enables continuous improvement and that has already raised standards in the sector. As has been mentioned, I have written to ask all universities to sign up to the mental health charter programme by September 2024. It is right that just 61 universities are already part of the charter programme. I know that that concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), and I agree that it is time the rest got onboard. 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.
Providers that do not have degree-awarding powers are not eligible but can still follow the charter’s principles, and there is an Association of Colleges mental health and wellbeing charter for colleges. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) talked about parity of esteem, and about how FE is doing these things and universities should be doing them as well. She is absolutely right. I thank all the further education colleges and providers for all they do to support learners with mental health difficulties.
I am confident that higher education can meet this challenge. However, I have made it clear that if the response is not satisfactory, I will go further and ask the Office for Students to look at the merits of a new registration condition on mental health. To those who fear it would not have the right impact, I want to be clear that any breach of such a condition would be subject to the same sanctions as breaches of other registration conditions.
I have been asked about the student support champion. For the record, I should declare that I was made an honorary professor of Nottingham Trent University when I was Chair of the Education Committee. We appointed Professor Edward Peck as the first ever student support champion in 2022, and I am pleased that he is in the Public Gallery to observe this debate. I am indebted to him for all his support and wise advice.
Professor Peck has worked with the LEARN Network to identify four more areas where providers should go further to protect students’ mental health. First, providers need to identify students at risk early, with pastoral care well before they reach crisis point. UCAS has worked hard to improve disclosure of mental health conditions by breaking down stigma and promoting the benefits of having reasonable adjustments in place from day one. Providers are already finding effective ways to identify students who have not yet disclosed but need help, such as Northumbria’s innovative use of student data analytics. We need to waste no time in rolling this out, but there needs to be a clear action plan, backed by the sector and students, to ensure that it happens.
Secondly, higher education needs to get behind a university student commitment on more personalised and compassionate academic processes, so that students are dealt with sensitively when they face course dismissal or receive difficult assignment results. The LEARN Network has raised the importance of that issue, and has asked for students to be treated fairly. Under the commitment, providers would review their procedures to ensure that the circumstances of individual students are considered, including their mental health.
Thirdly, lessons from existing reviews of student suicides need to be shared more widely, which I know some bereaved parents have been calling for. To ensure that that happens, we will commission an independent organisation to carry out a national review of university student deaths. That is the best way to ensure that local reviews are done rigorously, to learn from these tragic events and to prevent lives from being lost. My right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) talked about the suicide data issue. I will come on to what we are doing. I mentioned Professor Peck and the review, and it is perhaps something we could look at in relation to that. As my right hon. Friend knows, the Office for National Statistics has published national data on student suicides.
I know that there are bereaved families listening today who would particularly like to see Universities UK guidance on sharing information with trusted contacts effectively adopted. That has been raised by a number of Members. Of course, where possible, information should be shared with parents. There may be circumstances where students do not want to share. They may be adults; there may be issues with family breakdowns or personal issues that mean they do not want to share with parents, but having a point of contact is exactly right.
As of May 2023, a Universities UK survey showed that 93% of members have adopted or are adopting the guidance on information sharing, so we should start to see a change in practice. Ensuring that best practice on information sharing with trusted contacts, whether parents or otherwise, is fully implemented will be a key focus of the implementation taskforce. The taskforce will set targets for improvement, which I will come on to.
As I have mentioned, Professor Peck is chairing a new higher education mental health implementation taskforce, with its outputs reporting directly to me. It will include bereaved parents, students, mental health experts, charities and sector representatives. Of course, where I am able to involve the shadow Minister, I will be pleased to do so.
I will in a second, but I have some very important stuff for families to get through.
By the end of this year, the taskforce will be asked to put in place an interim plan for better early identification of students at risk and for delivering the university student commitment as well as a set of strong, clear targets for improvements by providers. By May 2024, it should follow with a final report outlining the next steps, including how the sector will publicly report on the progress measures over the coming years.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. We are talking about a lot of stakeholders, and we are also talking about UK bodies. I am very keen to understand what engagement the Minister is having with the Scottish and Welsh Governments. All of us, wherever we represent, want to ensure that we prevent student suicides.
Although education is a devolved issue, as the hon. Lady knows, I will of course work with the devolved authorities—absolutely. It is absolutely essential to learn from each other. The Labour party spokesman talked about Wales, for example. There is a lot that we can learn from.
Turning to the statutory duty of care called for by the petition, I absolutely get the arguments and hope I have demonstrated that I share the petitioners’ fundamental aims, which are to protect those who study at university and to prevent future tragedies. If creating a duty for higher education providers towards their students was the right way to achieve that, it would absolutely have the Government’s backing. There are reasons why we believe that it may not be the most effective intervention.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) expressed some important views about bureaucracy. PAPYRUS, the suicide prevention and mental health charity, says that one of the risks of the shift from “should” to “must” is that we already see, most prevalently, a rescinding of energy. My worry is that if we introduce a framework that says “must”, people will recoil even further and avoid any natural intervention that they would ordinarily make. I am worried that the thing that he wants to happen might create a one-size-fits-all approach, when we need to look at different ways of intervening for mental health.
First, the Government’s view, shared by independent legal experts, is that a general duty of care already exists in common law as part of the law of negligence. That means higher education providers must deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution. Recent judgments failed to find a duty of care in the circumstances of those particular cases. However, I am aware that the decision in Abrahart v. University of Bristol is being appealed in the High Court, so I have been advised that I am not able to comment further at this stage, although we will look at the issue carefully.
Secondly, there are already further protections for students in law. In particular, the Equality Act 2010 protects students with disabilities, including mental health conditions, from unlawful discrimination and harassment. It also provides reasonable adjustments where such students would otherwise be put at a substantial disadvantage. Providers must also fully observe health and safety obligations and requirements to safeguard vulnerable adults, as well as contractual obligations.
Thirdly, setting aside the legal position, we do not believe that the most effective way to improve student mental health is to introduce new legislative requirements when the sector is making progress on a voluntary basis. Although the sector absolutely could and should do more—I have tried to set out some of the things that we are calling for—providers are still innovating and improving, and there is not yet consensus on which interventions are most effective. That is the point I am trying to explain to my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire. It is no excuse for not doing anything or for inaction, but it does mean that the one-size-fits-all approach may not achieve the best results and support for students suffering from mental health difficulties, which is what we all want to see. As I say, we have other pieces of law already in place on equalities and on negligence.
I expect universities, as organisations with an obligation to do the right thing for their students, to rise to the challenge that we have set for them today. As I have mentioned, if we do not see the expected improvements I will not hesitate to ask the Office for Students to introduce a new registration condition on mental health. It is vital that the whole sector takes this call to action seriously.
I hope that I have been clear that we are not standing by and letting things continue as they are. I am determined that all universities will sign up to the mental health charter and that Professor Peck’s proposals will be implemented. I will reiterate those aims when I host a mental health roundtable for sector leaders. We will also continue to monitor how effectively the existing law is being applied.
I want to say one thing to everybody who has talked about the need for more legislation—my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald cares passionately about this, and I thank her for all that she has done for her constituents. To be absolutely clear, I am not closing the door on future legislation if that is what is required to make students safer. For now, we are seeking actively to bolster every aspect of the support systems that are available to students. Absolutely no one should take up the shining opportunity of a university place—it is meant to be one of the greatest times of one’s life—only to find that poor mental health support prevents them from getting the most out of the experience and the fulfilment of attending that university.
I thank all hon. Members who have come to the debate, and I thank the Minister for his letter and his comments. I thank all the petitioners who have come to the debate. I know that they were hoping for the statutory duty to be put in place. That was never going to happen today—this is a Westminster Hall debate, and that does not happen here—but they have heard the Minister’s comments. He has written to all universities to ask them to sign up to the mental health charter by 2024, which is obviously a step in the right direction. If we do not see any improvement in the way that young people in our universities are treated, we can come back to the Minister and ask for the issue to be looked at again. I understand how important the issue is to everybody and that they will be disappointed that we are not moving as fast as they want, but the point of these debates is to open a subject up for debate. We have heard from other charities that do not believe that the statutory duty of care is the way forward, and they are the specialists in this subject.
I talk about resilience an awful lot. The Education Committee heard last month that one in six young people has a diagnosed mental health issue and seven out of 10 believe that they are suffering with poor mental health. These young people are going on to university, where they are away from their family and friends, who may be in a foreign place, and the universities are not always doing what they should be doing. We need to look at why so many young people are struggling with their mental health. That is such a huge piece of work. It cannot be right that seven out of 10 children think they have a mental health issue. We need to grasp and look at that as Members of Parliament, as Government and as a wider society, because otherwise we will have more and more tragedies like the families here have had to suffer.
Once again, I thank everybody for taking part in the debate. It has been a tough debate, but I hope that with the works put forward by the Government and the continued pressure from the petitioners, we can get to a point where we start to see those numbers drop to zero, which is where they should be.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 622847, relating to a statutory duty of care for higher education students.