AMOSSHE members, and higher education providers more widely, are deeply committed to supporting the welfare and wellbeing of their students and staff.
Every student lost to suicide is a tragedy, and we will always strive as a sector to ensure that universities provide a safe environment in which students can thrive.
Higher education has been established to be a protective factor for students. The suicide rate among students is significantly lower than in the general population (1). This suggests the impact of the critical work that is being carried out by colleagues across the sector, both academically and pastorally, to support our students.
Nevertheless, we recognise it is important that universities identify areas for improvement or where practice may have fallen short of the high standards we and our students expect.
We have been supporting our members to embed the Universities UK (UUK) Suicide Safer framework, including their recent guidance, developed in partnership with AMOSSHE, Papyrus and those with lived experience of bereavement, on sharing information with trusted contacts and postvention approaches. The sector is demonstrably making significant progress in this area. According to recent research from UUK, 100% of responding universities had adopted or are in the process of adopting their postvention guidance, and the vast majority had adopted or are adopting the guidance on trusted contacts.
We stand with those bereaved in seeking improvements in professional support for students experiencing declining mental health. It is the NHS, not universities, that should provide this clinical support. As such, AMOSSHE members are also calling for more funding to be allocated to the NHS to support student mental health.
However, AMOSSHE does not believe that an additional legal statutory duty of care is the right approach for embedding the wider improvements we are committed to, and that have been identified by bereaved families and the LEARN Network.
UK higher education providers are already subject to a general duty of care, which requires them to not cause harm to their students through careless omissions, duties under the Equality Act (2010) to put in place support for people with disabilities (including mental health conditions), section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and duties around the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Whilst we recognise that more work is needed to ensure that university colleagues understand their responsibilities under these laws, we are concerned that an additional duty of care would not deliver the desired outcome.
The vast majority of students are independent adults, many of whom (about 85%) do not live on university campuses or in student accommodation. Higher education providers can only ever have limited control over the lives of their students. The only realistic way higher education providers would be able to prevent students from self-harm would be to monitor students in a manner similar to that of a healthcare or prison setting, which would be disproportionate and inappropriate given that a higher education provider’s primary purpose is to provide education and support the development of independent learning.
Additionally, although many higher education providers have skilled staff such as wellbeing practitioners, their focus is on the support for students in their time at university, not to diagnose or treat mental ill health. A duty of care, if this purports to prevent self-harm, would place unrealistic expectations over what higher education providers can control.
We are concerned, therefore, that an additional duty of care will make it more likely that higher education providers will take a risk averse approach, and this will ultimately create more barriers to participation at university. For example, there is a danger that higher education providers may lower their threshold for using fitness to study procedures to remove students from learning environments, instead of providing holistic support to enable students to continue their studies.
Whilst we do not agree that a legal duty of care is the right way to facilitate the adoption of good practice across the sector, we sympathise with and support many of the LEARN Network’s aims and proposed actions.
We support the continued adoption of a whole institution approach to student health and wellbeing, including:
We also recognise that designing and sharing good practice is only one part of the equation and that more needs to be done to demonstrate how the sector is measuring and evaluating the impact of institutional approaches. We are fully committed to working with sector partners to identify relevant metrics to measure progress and ensure that there is a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
AMOSSHE will continue to work with our members, sector partners and the LEARN Network to identify and develop good practice that supports our students’ wellbeing and learning outcomes.
1) Office for Statistics (2022). Estimating suicide among higher education students, England and Wales: Experimental Statistics: 2017 to 2020.
AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation is a UK non-profit professional association. Company registration number 4778650.