Analysing Student Welfare in HE

With the increase in media coverage surrounding student suicide, Dr Simon Merrywest, Director of Student Experience at the University of Manchester, discusses key issues.

There has been a lot of media coverage recently about suicide in the university sector. In line with trends in suicide among young people generally, rates of suicide had been increasing since 2009/10 (Office for National Statistics data from 2018). However, the ONS’ most recent analysis, released earlier this year, shows a decline in that rate over the academic years 2016/17 to 2019/20, with an average of 3.9 deaths per 100,000. Moreover, the suicide rate for university students in the academic year ending 2020 in England and Wales was even lower, at 3 deaths per 100,00 students which is also much lower than in the age matched wider population (where the rate is a little over 12 deaths per 100,000). 

In common with many bereaved families, I believe that all universities must make every effort to collect information about suicides. Many can and should be more open about the number of suspected and confirmed such cases (only a coroner can make such a determination). Indeed, you may have read a blog post I wrote on this point earlier in the year on Wonkhe. 

At the University of Manchester, we take very great care to record and examine in detail every suspected suicide.  We have developed a good relationship with the local coroner’s team, to the extent that we are routinely notified of any sudden deaths and I am invited to contribute to the subsequent inquest. We have a comprehensive suicide strategy, which was developed with input from our students, individuals with lived experience of student suicide and academic colleagues with expertise in this area.  

Over the last 5 years our average rate of suicide (with such small numbers, a rolling average is an appropriate measure) has dropped. So far, this academic year, one of our students is very sadly suspected to have taken their own life.

Universities UK recently published guidance on the approach universities should adopt for supporting students on placement. This is particularly aimed at courses such as nursing and education where students will often spend time in a hospital or school and concerns about a drop in attendance or other indicators that the student may be struggling can be harder to connect between different organisations. 

More recently, UUK launched further guidelines, calling on universities to be more proactive in preventing student suicides. Specifically, this sets out how and when universities should involve families, carers and trusted others when there are serious concerns about the safety or mental health of a student. 

Our university has, for several years, proactively contacted families and other third parties when we have serious concerns about a student, although decisions about when and whether to do so are seldom straightforward.  A case study of our approach, and of those taken elsewhere, is included in the UUK new framework, recognising that adaptation may be required by institution. 

Next month a postvention framework and to support all universities to respond to suicides with candour and compassion will be launched. Building on Suicide Safer Universities – a resource produced by Universities UK and PAPYRUS UK to support sector practitioners to prevent student suicides- it will be of interest to anyone who may need to be involved in responding to the death of a student. It has been produced by staff with direct experience of responding to student suicides and guided by the perspectives of bereaved parents, and students themselves.

Several bereaved families known as the Learn Network have recently launched a petition calling for a statutory duty of care for students to be introduced for all universities. 

The concept of a duty of care is a legally complex one. It is easy to see how this applies in a healthcare or primary school setting, where the person being cared for is reliant to a large extent on those working in the setting to protect them from harm. However, in a university the learners are usually adults and whilst we (as with every organisation) have legal obligations under health and safety law and must comply with the Equality Act with respect to, for example, considering reasonable adjustments for a student with a disability, there is not a wider legal duty of care to protect students from the potential of harm caused by their mental health. This is what the bereaved families are petitioning for.

There is not the space here to explore such an important issue in depth but having journeyed with several families through the grief of the loss of their child to suicide, I can strongly empathise with the arguments being made in favour of such an approach. However, consideration must also be given to the potential unintended consequences of turning to the statute book (quite apart from finding parliamentary airtime). A new legal duty of care may, ironically, lead to some universities being more defensive and some colleagues, at the first sign of a student struggling with their mental health, may rush them to the mental health team out of fear of litigation.

This issue has a way to run, but my hope is that the fact it is being debated and explored so widely may at least lead to some form of more explicit sector-wide clarification about the scope of mental health provision expected of our universities.