An estimated 100 students die after taking their own lives every year, but as there is no legal statutory duty of care, grieving parents have no legal power to hold universities to account. 

Today marks the first step for campaigners seeking a new law to change this, with MPs hearing evidence from charities such as Papyrus and Student Minds.

The Petitions Committee – a group of 11 MPs from several political parties – are currently holding an evidence session which began at 3:30pm BST, and can be viewed by the public as a broadcast from Parliament Live TV.

This session is being held ahead of a full Parliamentary debate set for June 5.

A legal duty of care could ensure all students receive the same level of safeguarding and protection, if put in place by Parliament.

Without it, the standard of care and support offered to students varies from university to university, according to Dr Mark Shanahan, whose son Rory took his own life in 2018.

“What we are asking for is something that sets what is actually a relatively low bar for a standard of support for students that is consistent across the over 200 higher education institutions in the country,” he said.

In the Government’s response to a petition by campaign group #forthe100, they stated: “Higher education providers already have a general duty of care not to cause harm to their students through their own actions”, and that a statutory duty of care would be “a disproportionate response”, as student suicide rates are generally lower than the wider UK population. 

“Students should not be left in this precarious situation, not knowing whether they can rely on their university,” said barrister Georgina Calvert-Lee, who publicly supports the campaign. “They have to take reasonable steps to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm. 

“It’s absolutely consistent with what employers do already, and with what many of us thought already existed for universities – even a lot of university lawyers.”

So what would a new law entail for universities and students?

Lisa Ravenscroft works for ProtectED, a non-profit organisation that aids universities working to improve and protect students’ safety and wellbeing. 

She supports the campaign for a legal duty of care, as ProtectED too had noticed universities were not held accountable in some situations; she said: “There was no bar that they had to hit, they could do whatever they wanted, good or bad. And we realised that’s not a good thing.”

Universities must prove they adhere to all ProtectEd ‘codes of standard’ to receive official accreditation. Seven UK universities are currently registered on its scheme, with another three in the process of joining. 

She explained that one step towards a more functional duty of care could be asking students who have mental health issues to inform the university beforehand – “because then the university can be prepared and get everything in place,” Ms Ravenscroft said. “We know that a lot of students don’t, because they’re worried there’s a stigma and people aren’t going to understand.” 

Tom Gordon, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Harrogate and Knaresborough, acknowledged that existing guidance from initiatives such as Universities UK asks educators to contact key family members, carers or friends if they have serious concerns about a student’s mental health.

However, he said: “I do agree that there is a case to strengthen the law to make institutions more accountable following the sad number of students who have taken their lives themselves at university.”

Ms Ravenscroft stressed the importance of students who need extra help and support getting access to it as soon as possible, but also considered other potential impacts. “It’s about the mental health support that everyone else is getting – friends, family, other students, to make sure it doesn’t cascade out.”

The amount of money each university spends on pastoral care and mental health services is vastly different. Aston University spent a total of £82.30 per student on these services, the highest of the universities that responded to our Freedom of Information request, while the lowest, Bath Spa, spent £17.

Data on the total spend per student for Wellbeing and Support services at several UK universities.

Waiting times for students who have requested access to these services also varies. At the University of Aberdeen, students wait an average of one to two days, while at Bath Spa, it takes six to eight weeks. This is one area of university services that will be covered in a Parliamentary debate on June 5.

If this debate leads to a new law being created or current legislation being changed, it can be expected that it won’t come into force immediately. Ms Calvert-Lee describes a “lag” after enacting legislation, to give organisations “a chance to get their act together”. 

“I do think a couple of years might be a realistic timetable. You always want to base new laws on the way old laws are done, so you’re not completely reinventing the wheel.”

A statutory duty of care would not require universities to be a “mental health service provider”; it would simply be mandatory for them to follow any guidance put out by the regulators or sector. 

Ms Calvert-Lee said, “Staff commonly do want to help, and don’t know whether they should. It would be reasonable for the university to train everyone so that they knew exactly what to do, which would take away the stress for individuals.”

She believes that staff should know that they are allowed to intervene and actively be encouraged to, having had sufficient training beforehand. 

Each university could be expected to look at their own situation and students’ needs across all departments. She stressed that any law should not enforce a ‘checklist’, and should encourage universities to consider each situation.

However, a crucial element would be prevention, requiring universities to look at past cases of student suicide and review any risks or failings that had been missed.

In a snapshot survey of 31 universities, only 10 provided the number of students who had died by suicide in the academic years 2018/19 to 2021/22.

There is no legal requirement for institutions to hold this data, making it more difficult to hold universities who may have high suicide rates to account. 

Ms Calvert-Lee said that although the duty of care could be one simple line of legislation, behind that line will be a whole approach that covers training, prevention, intervention, and circumspection – after the event. This should include keeping a record of how many deaths by suicide they’ve had, and learning from that through analysis and review.