Reporter Janka Deák breaks down the University’s duty of care for its students.
The recent criticisms levied at accommodation services and the University of Glasgow’s handling of the overflow of student applicants raise an issue not usually at the forefront of students’ minds: does the University owe us support services, or is the University meant to be a purely educational institution? Are our complaints against the University justified? Does the University owe us all that we expect, if anything at all?
Let’s start with the absolute best part: the student contract. The University is our workplace. We are under contract to fulfil our responsibilities to the University as its attendees. A contract comes with obligations from both sides; just as the University is justified in expecting our cooperation, we as students are equally justified in expecting them to hold up their part of the deal. Section 3.9 of the University of Glasgow Student Terms and Conditions states that students are “[eligible] for financial support and access to dedicated support staff”. Furthermore, educational institutions have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of their students.
“A contract comes with obligations from both sides; just as the University is justified in expecting our cooperation, we as students are equally justified in expecting them to hold up their part of the deal.”
Now that we’re sufficiently warmed up, let’s elaborate. The University is obligated under common law to provide support services for students. The Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education (AMOSSHE) outlines the legal requirements for a university’s duty of care, stating that in carrying out its educational services and functions, an institution must “act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of its students”. This, at minimum, would entail offering basic welfare services, including mental health and disability support.
There’s also a moral factor. For many, going to university is the first step in the transition to their adult lives, which is a difficult process of trial and error that has been made all the more challenging by the Covid-19 pandemic. University students are already at a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety relative to the general population, the rates of which have risen even more as a result of lockdown-era restrictions. In light of the increase in student suicides over the past year, I firmly believe that the University’s provision of mental health support services is not only a legal requirement, but also a moral duty. Quality services could save student lives.
“In light of the increase in student suicides over the past year, I firmly believe that the University’s provision of mental health support services is not only a legal requirement, but also a moral duty.”
Moreover, it’s a question of equity. The University’s support system is essential for students whose academic performance may otherwise be hindered by factors outside their control. The University owes everyone an equal opportunity and quality of education no matter what background they come from. For the most part, the University has done so relatively decently, with online learning promoting a generally accessible and inclusive experience during Covid-19. The University already provides a variety of support services to make things easier, especially at the beginning of our academic careers – we are offered access to mental health services and disability adjustments, as well as general help to overcome obstacles that get in the way of learning.
That being said, the University’s recent handling of the accommodation shortage leaves much to be desired. Their inability to make good on their promise to guarantee accommodation for first year students has put both home and international students in a less than ideal situation. With international students advised to either defer or study remotely until they can independently secure housing, they have faced challenges that may significantly impact their academic performance. When international students have to get up at 4am to get to class because of time differences, it makes it difficult for them to apply themselves fully to their education. In turn, this contributes to decreased motivation, dropping grades and a general feeling of isolation from university life.
So, yes, the University owes us things other than a quality education. In order to ensure the same quality for everyone, they are responsible to do as much as they can to mitigate the factors outside students’ control that could impact their academic progression. Accommodation services overextending their capabilities is not students’ fault, so they should not have to suffer the consequences. It is the University’s duty to think ahead and ensure adequate provision of available services.