It’s part of a campaign from the Learn Network, a community of bereaved families of students who have died by suicide, and follows an event in parliament organised by the group a few weeks back.
The Petitions Committee, which is responsible for considering e-petitions started on https://petition.parliament.uk/, has scheduled a debate on the petition on Monday 5 June – and ahead of the debate, the committee yesterday heard from the petition creator, other affected individuals, and representatives from relevant charities and sectoral bodies.
Lee Fryatt, whose son Dan died by suicide while at Bath Spa, spoke first – setting out the case for communication with parents when something is wrong:
The university were aware that he was struggling with his mental health, they were aware that he had expressed some suicidal thoughts. As his family, we were the last to know that was going on. We were never told, we were never given an opportunity to provide any support, or intervention or work with the university to stop that from happening.
Hilary Grime, whose daughter Phoebe died by suicide at Newcastle University, explained why the campaign exists:
Students don’t have the time or the know how to fight this battle. An individual couldn’t take on universities and governments. It couldn’t be done alone, you have to have something really terrible to happen to make you want to do this, this is a really hard thing to have to do… So at last, we have got together we’ve got a group of really strong focussed, intelligent and driven people who will, who will make change, we can make a difference to the students in the UK, current and future.
Ben West, a mental health campaigner whose brother died by suicide in 2018, suggested that “guidance” that could be regarded as “optional” represented a problem:
There’s no accountability when that goes wrong. And there’s no learning and no progress for getting it right again. So I think we’ve we’ve done a lot of great work in the voluntary aspect of this, it is absolutely essential that we have the conversation about creating a statutory requirement for universities operate in a legally safe way that is standard across the sector.
And then Mark Shanahan, the father of Rory Shanahan who died by suicide at Sheffield University in 2018, set his remarks in the context of being a personal tutor in the sector:
But what we’re finding is that while there are many fantastic things that go and go on in a lot of universities for most of the time, there isn’t a consistency of practice. Students don’t get the parity of approach. They don’t see consistency from us, between departments or between institutions, or across the academic and professional teams within universities. As an academic, I can’t hand on hearts point to great clarity in what my role or my colleagues role is, in our pastoral part of our work.
I’ve covered the debate over a statutory duty of care for students on here before, suffice to say that here we again saw some evidence of talking at cross purposes.
Speaking for Universities UK, UWE vice chancellor Steve West argued that unlike schools or employers, universities can have limited impact on students:
The difficulty in the students space is that we don’t have that level of control and influence in the same way. Now schools have a degree of influence and control in school children… we have to remember that for many of our students, they are attending multiple different settings, and sometimes not even on campuses, they’re they’re engaging with universities remotely. Very few actually, of our students live on campus in campus, the vast majority of students are living at home, or are living within communities in multiple occupancy dwellings, or homes that are outside the university.
The problem, as we’ve noted before, is that the parents running the campaign aren’t arguing that universities should exercise the same level of care as, say a school over a child. They’re arguing that to the extent to which universities should do things, they should be done to a standard.
As such there were some uncomfortable exchanges over the metaphor with employees. The parents had pointed out that a “statutory” duty of care exists in the employment context – and Education Committee chair Robin Walker was keen to press West on the issue:
We’ve heard suggestion that you have a greater legal duty to your staff than you do to students. And yet students are key to universities, they are at the end of the day, your customers as well as people who live in your institutions in many cases, what is the answer to why a statutory duty of care on the same basis as you have towards employees, wouldn’t be in your view appropriate for students.
In response West appeared to deflect the question – suggesting that alternative frameworks might be better to deliver accountability, and even going as far as to suggest that OfS be caused to regulate support through a SEF to go with the REF, KEF and TEF:
I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be a mechanism whereby we are held to account, I think we absolutely do need that. The question is, is the statutory duty of care the best way of doing that. Now, interestingly, an earlier witness started to describe something which I thought was quite interesting, which was a support excellence framework, in a similar way to other frameworks that we have in the sector. Now that’s a quite a creative way of thinking about how we ensure that there are guidelines that are then adopted and measured. It could be through the Office for Students…
Of course, West will know that the TEF concerns aspirational standards and enhancement – where the B conditions concern minimum standards, which is closer to the position of the parents who argue that students need to be able to rely on universal minimums.
And West will also know that it’s hardly the case that a student on a badly taught course can raise a complaint on the basis that a university is TEF Gold.
AMOSSHE’s Jill Stevenson was perhaps more honest about objections to the idea of a statutory duty:
From our practitioners that that work in Student Services, there are real fears about being about retribution, and people being held personally accountable for mistakes, and I think the fear of litigation and retribution means that some people that are working in this area, feel that this is not something they would want to engage in.
The nub of the issue, it seems, is the idea of either an individual or university in general being accused of negligence against a set of professional standards – where the argument is that the fear drives people away from roles like personal tutor, conversations about mental health or even drives people out of working in HE in general.
It’s an important argument – while it’s clear that lots of staff do want to support students, there’s a risk that they will be held to expectations of support that go beyond what a provider of adult learning might reasonably be expected to do.
The problem is that the position feels at odds with broader university sector statements that describe the approach to mental health. It feels like an expectations issue that comes back to – what can a student, wherever they study, expect and rely on when it comes to support?
This was, as ever, a debate that seemed to focus exclusively on universities. I’d be keen to see parliamentarians thinking carefully about the whole of the sector – especially those providers that specialise in low cost delivery of business and health courses, often under franchise from a university, and tiny arts providers. Surely even UUK’s implied minimums in universities aren’t happening consistently here?
It would also help, I think, if all concerned could look to other HE systems for inspiration. Students in Sweden are closely (but not fully) equated with employees in the country’s Work Environment Act – a piece of law that refers to the physical, psychological and social conditions that employees and students should experience. Then across the country through SUs and their constituent subject, faculty and department associations, something called studerandekyddsombuds (student protection officers) are elected, who monitor everything from bullying and harassment, disability discrimination and physical safety like lighting on campus. The sky hasn’t fallen in there.
Ultimately, if suicide prevention work isn’t an optional luxury, the question everyone needs to focus on is how we get to a point where all students in HE might be able to rely on the “good practice” that UUK says is out there to be followed. It’s increasingly hard to believe that the answer to achieving consistency is to never insist on it.
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