Parents outline ‘woeful’ mental health support for students at UK universities

Posted: 2nd June 2023

Source: The Guardian

Survey follows petition demanding legislation for a statutory duty of care in higher education.

Students who are struggling with their mental health can wait a whole academic year to receive help from university counselling services, while others are allowed only six sessions for their entire degree, according to a new survey.

Parents who took part in the survey criticised UK universities for failing to contact them when their child was struggling with their mental health. Others said that when they got in touch with their child’s university to raise concerns, these were not escalated.

Some accused providers of failing to act even when a student did not turn up for a single lecture all term. “We did not know anything was a problem until our son sent us a message indicating that he did not want to live,” said one parent, whose son had stopped attending.

“My son did not attend lectures for a whole term due to mental health issues and no one noticed or cared,” said another.

Parents, along with others who contributed to the survey, also expressed concern about the level of support for students’ mental health at university which varies widely across the sector and was described as “woeful” by one.

“Students can wait a whole academic year to be seen and supported, and the burden of care is often left with personal tutors in the department,” one university worker said. Others are entitled to just six counselling sessions over the course of their entire degree and can face long waiting lists.

“My son’s experience was very poor, despite a history of mental health struggles and a SEND [special educational needs and disability] diagnosis, he was not supported sufficiently. No attempt was ever made to reach out to him,” one parent said.

The survey, which attracted 1,500 responses, was conducted by the Commons petition committee ahead of a debate on Monday when MPs will discuss a petition calling for the creation of a statutory duty of care from higher education providers towards students.

It follows widespread and prolonged coverage of a number of student suicides in recent years. The survey was circulated among those who had signed the petition, which has more than 128,000 signatures.

It states: “No general statutory duty of care exists in HE [higher education]. Yet, a duty of care is owed to students, and the government should legislate for this. HE providers should know what their duty is. Students must know what they can expect. Parents expect their children to be safe at university.”

Responding to the petition, the government said higher education providers already have a general duty of care not to cause harm to their students through their own actions and further legislation to create a statutory duty of care would be “disproportionate”.

The parents who took part in the survey disagreed. “Duty of care exists in all areas of work and apprenticeships but not for vulnerable young adults,” said one. “Lack of duty of care in higher education is a serious omission in the UK legislation that needs to be rectified. We need a level playing field. Students should have the same right to duty of care as everyone else.”

Another said: “It is not enough for universities to be advised on what they should do. A statutory duty of care is a bare minimum for such large businesses. There are more regulations in place for shelf stackers than there are for students at university.”

Robert Abrahart, whose daughter Natasha killed herself in 2018 while a student at Bristol University, described the current system as a lawless wild west. “And, given no relevant legal responsibility, there can be no accountability when things go badly wrong.

“Most providers could design and implement safer processes and procedures. But they won’t, because they don’t want to, and don’t have to – so something needs to be changed. The proposed duty would establish a minimum standard of professional behaviour – requiring all members of staff to do what might reasonably be expected.”

Just 1% of the students who took part in the survey said their university was “very supportive” of their mental health. One student said: “The systems for accessing mental health support are complex and not fit for purpose for those in crisis or suffering poor mental health. Please make it easy – a 24-hour support line. Don’t fob us off with text lines and the Samaritans’ line.”

Prof Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England Bristol and president of Universities UK, which represents 140 providers said: “Record numbers of children and young adults are now experiencing poor mental health and this is reflected in growing student need.

“Although universities are investing in student support and developing partnerships with NHS services, their primary role is as settings for adult learning not health care.

“We do not believe the proposed additional statutory duty of care, beyond the existing duties that already apply to universities, would be practical, proportionate, or the best approach to supporting students.

“We continue to work with the government, and its student support champion, Prof Edward Peck, on proposals to improve outcomes for students.”

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