Overview of the debate
On Monday, a statutory duty of care for students at university was debated in the House of Commons, a culmination of tremendous efforts by campaigners through months of work and dedication. We fully celebrate the achievement of getting student mental health on the national agenda and are all indebted to the families and friends who have been campaigning and sharing their experiences to drive positive change.
Members of Parliament spoke to the personal experiences of their constituents, families with experiences of bereavement and students that had difficult experiences at university. These devastating accounts demonstrated the urgent need for accountable processes and clarity on the role of institutions in preventing student deaths by suicide.
Robert Halfon, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships & Higher Education, spoke to the governments’ planned approach:
Ministerial support for the University Mental Health Charter
As an organisation, we are committed to an approach that drives forward change across the sector addressing both the root causes of poor mental health within university communities and how this needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis as it evolves over time. This is why we developed the University Mental Health Charter.
Following the debate, the Rt. Hon. Robert Halfon MP, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, has written to leaders across the higher education sector to express his ambition that all eligible universities join the University Mental Health Charter Programme by September 2024. We hope that this will help to formalise a genuine commitment from all universities across the sector to embed a whole-university approach to student mental health.
To date, 61 institutions have signed-up to become members of the programme and we know that many more universities are committed to make the changes needed to embed mental health and wellbeing into university communities that will improve student mental health. We want to support universities to understand what a whole-university approach to student mental health means for them in practice, give them opportunities to learn from each other and foster safe spaces for open, reflective discussions and learning.
With recruitment opening soon for 23/24 we are cautiously optimistic about what this might mean for the next year’s Programme membership and look forward to meeting with universities that may consider joining for the first time. We also look forward to working with the Department for Education and the Minister to explore how the government can support this ambition and respond to the wider factors surfaced in the parliamentary debate which contribute to the wellbeing of the university community.
Where next on a Statutory Duty of Care
Preventing deaths by suicide is a nuanced, complex, issue, as is addressing poor student mental health more widely. There isn’t a simple solution. We believe that what will prevent further student deaths by suicide is the material changes made to students’ experiences, accountability measures, support, and the way universities and the wider health system aid students in distress. We understand that some may see a duty of care as a way to direct universities to make these changes, but we are not confident this would play out in practice.
At Student Minds, we are an independent charity led by student experience, strong evidence and clinical oversight. We ensure that any work we support or develop is evidence-led and shaped by the expertise of students, HE professionals and clinicians. We are not afraid to challenge the government, universities or other organisations where necessary and often have in the past.
When the petition was first developed we consulted the LEARN network, students, staff, clinicians and legal experts. While supportive of some of the asks of the campaign - for greater clarity on the roles and responsibilities of universities and for the gap in accountability to be addressed - we were not convinced that a full Statutory Duty of Care was the right approach at this time having not received evidence that the unintended consequences and potential to cause inadvertent harm would be managed.
Earlier this year we published a news piece outlining the approach we take with the Charter and the recognition we have that this needs to be a joined-up effort across the Higher Education sector, working with the NHS, working with national policy makers and campaigners, and by building on research and evidence to strengthen and improve practice. We also attended the Petitions Committee’s evidence session to speak to the approach we’re taking with the University Mental Health Charter and the guidance, frameworks and best practice that has been being developed over the last few years.
Student Minds will follow the progress the sector makes, and with our support, over the next 12 months. We will continue to engage with providers and the government to review our position on regulation as required. Thank you to all our supporters, advisors and collaborators for working with us to secure a future where no student is held back by their mental health.
We understand that it's not easy for any students, family members or members of the university community to read about these very difficult issues and we encourage anyone affected to look after themselves and reach out to others if required (please see links provided below).
Are you looking for support?
Research into student mental health suggests that broad support networks can help recovery from, and management of, mental health difficulties. Your wider support network might include friends and family, your GP, University counselling / wellbeing services.
Are you feeling actively suicidal?
If you are feeling like you want to die, please consider that many people who have attempted or come close to suicide look back with gratitude that they did not act on their intentions. If you are feeling actively suicidal now: