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Duty of Care: Government Must Give Clarity for Staff & Parity For Students NOW!

“The role and responsibility of [staff], in relation to student mental health, is ambiguous and lacking in clarity. This leads to weak and uncertain boundaries and increased risk to students, staff and universities” Student Minds Report, 2018


The Government’s response to our petition for a legal duty of care has further endangered university staff and students. Industry experts revealed in a 2018 report that Duty of Care was not understood in universities, causing stress to staff, and leaving students at risk. Between 400 - 500 students have died by suicide since that report was published. In 2022, Bristol University was found to have breached the Equality Act but argued successfully in Court that it had no duty of care to it’s students.


The government has failed to learn from the past and is misrepresenting the truth on duty of care and the lack of accountability that this entails.


The LEARN Network know that ‘weak and uncertain boundaries’ contributed to the suicides of our children and siblings. Examples include: failure to refer students to support services; not checking declared mental health history; failure to follow-up on consented-to contact with families to gain support; failure to share critical information; ignoring cries for help; dismissal without meetings; not looking for extenuating circumstances with missed or failed exams; and no consideration of mental health in decisions to take action (or not) at key moments. This apparent lack of kindness, care or compassion is a common theme in our stories. We know good practice and compassion exists in the sector, we just need it to be the standard.


Given that 2/3 of suicides are students not known to support services, adding support services alone is not the answer. Universities must support all staff to proactively spot the signs of poor mental health. A legal duty of care would require universities to train all staff to discuss mental health with students, knowing when to ‘hold’ a student and when to ‘signpost’. Staff are after all on the frontline particularly as non-academic causes are oft behind academic problems.


It is time for the law to recognise the special relationship that universities have with their students. Young adults looking to find themselves are investing 10's of thousands in education in universities that offer to set them up for success, but also have the power to fail them. We have a mental health crisis in our young, so it is totally foreseeable that action (or inaction) that affects the student journey would have consequences for student mental health.


Where universities have some measure of control, for example, dismissal, fitness to study, extenuating circumstances and failed exams, they must take reasonable steps to protect the student. Considering impact on the mental health of the student should be a legal duty of care.


The government’s statement has created more confusion, not greater clarity. It does not say anything about the specific type of duty that is being described. Is it a statutory duty – legislated by parliament? If it was, it would be a written law that could easily be looked up, leaving very little room for any dispute over what it entailed. There is no such record. Is it a common law duty - based upon judicial decisions? If it was, it would be a written law, embodied in reports of decided cases, that could easily be looked up. There is no such record. Without a duty of care written in law we are only left with a ‘moral duty’, something that has no relation to the law, such as looking after your family and helping the needy. Universities do have a LEGAL duty of care to their staff, why not to their students? Whatever the government thinks is in place for duty of care, it’s clearly not understood and not enough, and this has been known for over 5 years:


“There is a need for the sector to debate and define the role of the academic in responding to student mental health and consider this within a whole university approach…Universities should clarify what responsibilities academics hold (e.g. around duty of care)” Student Minds Report, 2018.


We are calling for urgent action. The government must debate this matter, provide clarity, and establish a legal duty of care that helps all students whether they are suffering, struggling, or seeking to thrive. A legal duty of care that reduces ‘weak and uncertain boundaries’ and ensures that the mental health of students is considered when making decisions that affect the student journey.


What should change?

Universities UK (‘Whole University Approach’) and Student Minds (University Mental Health Charter) have set out a good agenda for change. The problem is it’s only guidance and not widely adopted. A debate that prioritises key elements of this guidance and informs the need for a legal duty of care would be a huge leap forward.


Why change?

To make universities safer and more compassionate places for every student to enjoy. The government has stated that because the rate of suicide is lower than in the wider population, there should be no legal duty of care to students. This is callous and misinformed. Firstly, dealing with the numbers: 3.2% of students attempt suicide, 6.2% plan suicide and 25% of students have suicidal ideation . This is not a small group! A single death is a tragedy and 100 preventable deaths per year is a compelling argument for change. Secondly, a legal Duty of Care would help all students, whatever physical or mental challenges they are dealing with. And finally, why should staff be covered but not students?


Please help all students, demand ‘parity’ and ‘clarity’ by signing our petition now.


Please contact us at: admin@TheLearnNetwork.org.uk if you have any questions.


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