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Higher Education: Liability

Question for Department for Education

UIN 129764, tabled on 23 January 2023

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if she will make an assessment of the potential merits of introducing a statutory duty of care for higher education institutions to students aged 18 and over.

Answered on

30 January 2023

The mental health and wellbeing of students, including suicide prevention, is a government priority. The department has been working closely with higher education (HE) providers and health colleagues to ensure that students are well supported during their time at university. We expect all HE providers to take suicide prevention with the utmost seriousness, focusing on prevention, providing information and places for students to find help, actively identifying students at risk, and intervening with swift support when needed.

HE providers are autonomous organisations, independent from the government. HE providers 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. HE providers have a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.

Students with disabilities, including mental health impairments, are protected under the Equality Act 2010 which prohibits discrimination and imposes a duty on HE providers to make reasonable adjustments where disabled students are put at a substantial disadvantage.

The NHS has statutory responsibility for delivering mental health services to the whole population, including students.

We work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Office for Students (OfS), and the HE sector to support the student population. We have asked the OfS to distribute £15 million of funding this year as additional support to help students with the transition from schools and colleges to university. This is also to fund partnerships between universities and local NHS services to provide pathways of care for university students.

The department has been vocal in our support for the University Mental Health Charter, led by Student Minds and developed in collaboration with students, staff, and partner organisations. The Charter aims to drive up standards of practice across the HE sector. 60 universities on the Charter Programme form part of a UK-wide practice sharing network with access to events and opportunities to come together to improve their whole university approach to student and staff mental health. Programme members can also work towards the Charter Award, an accreditation scheme which recognises universities that demonstrate excellent practice.

The department has appointed university Vice-Chancellor Edward Peck as HE's first ever Student Support Champion. His role is to provide sector leadership and promoting effective practice in areas including mental health and information sharing. Professor Peck is engaging with families who have suffered bereavement due to students taking their own life during their time at university.