I am the father of Natasha Abrahart, who took her own life on 30 April 2018 aged 20. She was a second-year physics student at the University of Bristol. In 2022, a court ruled that discrimination by the university caused her death. That same court also found that no duty of care was owed by a university to a student.
Twenty-five bereaved families have subsequently petitioned Parliament, wanting a statutory duty of care for students in higher education. That petition, now closed, generated 128,293 signatures, substantially exceeding the numerical threshold, necessary for an issue to be considered for a debate in Westminster Hall.
Ministers, officials, parents, students … nobody it seems … has ever stopped to question whether or not our universities have a legal obligation, in carrying out their services and functions, to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students. But no such duty has ever been imposed – so they don’t!
School children are protected under education law. Employees are protected under employment law — including an obligation to make sure that nobody on the payroll suffers stress-related illness as a result of their daily toil. But there is nothing in place to protect university students, typically young adults, who are left stranded in no man’s land with no legal duty of care entitlement.
This is not about how old somebody is, or about breaching privacy and confidentiality. It is about recognising the nature of the special relationship that exists between a university and its students.
A general duty of care would require all institutions to consider and review their internal policies, processes and procedures – as well as day-to-day practices – to make sure they are delivered in a safer way, one that does not harm, or is not likely to harm, anybody.
This would include causing psychiatric injury, and in cases of serious concern, not making sufficient effort to obtain consent, for sharing relevant information with nominated others who could intervene and help when problems are disclosed.
Dodgy internal processes and practices are known to have contributed to feelings of despair among students, creating an associated fear of being unable to cope, or of being kicked out. Student deaths have been linked to university mechanisms for dismissal, fitness to study, and communication of results. Most if not all of these tragic deaths could easily have been avoided.
Staff obviously care about their students, but are constantly confronted with decision-making challenges, and have no clear direction. Duty of care would address this issue: do what might reasonably be expected, using common sense, understanding, and compassion. Staff will feel empowered and compelled to follow their instincts.
Too many students slip though the net because staff delay decisions for fear of doing the wrong thing. Or a fear of breaking confidentiality prevents them from telling key people who need to know.
In all cases, it would establish a culture of prevention, avoiding escalation to crisis point, leading to safer operational systems and safer daily practices, delivering ways of working that are less risky.
The petition was triggered by an urgent need to protect our most vulnerable students, but the proposed legislation will also of course benefit a great many others since everybody would be covered.
The petitioners are only asking for university students to be given similar legal protections to those that are enjoyed by university staff. The group is only seeking a legal standard for organisations to do what any caring person might reasonably be expected to do when making a decision about a student.
This is not a lot to ask and something that institutions should already be doing, irrespective of any legal necessity.
One hundred university students die by suicide each year in the UK. It doesn’t have to be this way.
This important reform is long overdue. Please show your support and help us bring about the necessary changes by asking your MP to attend a ‘duty of care’ briefing session, for law makers, in the Palace of Westminster on 25 April. Letter and email templates can be found at:
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