The parents of Natasha Abrahart, who took her own life while studying at the University of Bristol, have reacted with “absolute horror” to the government’s response to their petition calling for a statutory legal duty of care for all students in higher education.
The Abraharts are one of 25 bereaved families who helped launch a parliamentary petition last October, calling on ministers to pass legislation to better protect students and arguing that their mental health, safety and wellbeing should be a government priority.
The government’s response says higher education providers already have “a general duty of care” not to cause harm to their students through their own actions. This has enraged families who have lost children to suicide, who say it is meaningless in the absence of a commitment to establish a statutory duty of care.
Natasha’s father, Robert Abrahart, 66, a retired university lecturer, said he was horrified by the response and accused the government of ducking the issue. “If the government agrees with us that students deserve the protection of a legal duty of care then it should introduce a bill in parliament rather than making bland statements.”
The government’s response, published last month, comes as a new campaign is launched to support bereaved parents’ demands. #ForThe100, named for the 100 students the campaign estimates are lost to suicide every year in the UK, will be launched on Monday to win wider support for the petition, which currently has over 15,000 signatures. Once 100,000 have been collected, it will be considered for a debate in parliament.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the suicide rate for higher education students in the academic year ending 2020, the latest figures available, in England and Wales was three deaths per 100,000 students – 64 deaths – which is thought to be the lowest rate over the previous four years.
A #ForThe100 statement said: “The duty of care being called for is similar to that prevailing under employment law, that universities should have a statutory duty of care to protect their students from reasonably foreseeable harm, caused either by direct injury or by failing to act.
“In work, or in education, 18- to 21-year-olds are vulnerable enough to warrant this duty, and since providers are happy to take their fees, they should also take on this duty of care. This is not just about suicide prevention; everybody will benefit from improved decision-making within the sector.”
Natasha Abrahart, who was in the second year of an undergraduate physics degree, suffered from severe social anxiety and took her own life in 2018, on the day she was due to face an oral exam in front of tutors and fellow students. A judge ruled that Bristol University failed to make adequate adjustments to how it assessed her academic work.
Gus Silverman, a human rights lawyer who represented the Abraharts, as well as the families of other students who have taken their lives, said Natasha’s parents were able to get some measure of justice because the particular requirements of the Equality Act, in that her severe anxiety was a disability, were met in her case.
“However, unless they are able to establish the existence of a duty of care in negligence, many families and students will find it very difficult to hold universities accountable through the courts, including where a death has tragically occurred.
“The government now has an opportunity to clearly define in statute the legal duties owed by universities to students. Failing to seize this opportunity risks preventing access to justice through the courts.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK, an umbrella organisation for 140 universities, said: “It is for government to decide the legal framework within which universities operate, but it is essential that any additional duty does not result in unintended consequences for students and improves mental health outcomes and safety for all.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Natasha’s story is truly heart-breaking and we offer our sincerest condolences to all of her loved ones.
“The mental health and wellbeing of students, including suicide prevention, is of paramount importance to the government which is why we have asked the Office for Students to allocate £15m towards student mental health and to provide a more regular analysis of student suicide data.
“Since we appointed Edward Peck as higher education’s first ever student support champion, he has been speaking directly to bereaved parents, to understand how practice in this area can be improved. We are also backing the university mental health charter, led by Student Minds which supports universities to adopt a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing.”