What’s happening with the government’s review of student suicides?

Cast your mind back to June when universities minister Robert Halfon used a Westminster Hall debate to reject a statutory duty of care for students in England.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Summing up for the government, Halfon instead outlined a package of four measures to be delivered through a new higher education mental health implementation taskforce – encouraging the use of learner analytics, a three-line whip on participation in the University Mental Health Charter, more compassionate comms when a student gets results, and a review of student suicides.

On the latter, Halfon said:

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.

I don’t think I’m being unfair to have assumed that Halfon was signalling that lessons would be learned at least from the past few years.

But it turns out that when he said that lessons from existing reviews of student suicides need to be shared more widely, he actually only meant suicides that might happen in the future. On the taskforce website, the paper on the project says that once a firm is appointed to review universities’ existing reviews:

…Only student suicides and near-misses occurring in the 2023/24 academic year will be reviewed in the first instance but the report will consider how and whether lessons have been learnt from historic cases.

It’s hard to see that as anything other than a slap in the face for bereaved families. It’s also not clear why that would be the case – unless universities haven’t been reviewing student suicides and learning lessons until now, and so wouldn’t have anything to submit. And the methodology in general will feel to many like universities marking their own homework.

We’re told that DfE started consultation with IHE, AoC, GuildHE and UUK on the “methods for and safeguards around submission of internal reviews” for analysis in June – it won’t tell us what it asked, if indeed it’s asked it – but again, for this process to win the trust of students and bereaved families, you want to be clear on what universities were being expected to submit.

The paper on the comms thing is right to point out that more compassionate comms can cover both academic regulations and broader behaviour – and that distress can be exacerbated if internal procedures (for example, academic misconduct, fitness to study, and disciplinary processes, or communication of assignment results) do not consider the potential vulnerabilities of students. I’d add immigration comms to that list too.

You’d both want bereaved families and students, SUs and their advice centres to be able to feed examples of bad practice into that one – but instead we’re just told that the steering committee, in collaboration with Advance HE and the UUK Student Policy Network, were due to have a round table on it last week to “examine and review emerging good practice”, which does seem a bit cart before horse.

There’s no evidence in any of the paperwork on the Charter discussion resolving the lack of coverage of the UHMC over HE in FE, alternative providers, franchised provision or TNE, but maybe that will emerge in the minutes – the last set of which was published in July, despite a suggestion that the steering group has been “meeting monthly” and that it will “be a transparent forum, with a publicly available website where minutes and relevant papers will be published”.

As of that first meeting, a number of members argued there should be more representation in the taskforce from current students – probably because at that stage there was precisely one student. Chair, student support champion and Norttingham Trent vice chancellor Edward Peck was “open to this suggestion” – we’ll doubtless find out soon if it was acted on.

Leave a Reply