The Glasgow Guardian spoke to The Learn Network and parents of Harry Armstrong Evans, on the necessity of a legal duty of care in higher education and the introduction of Harry’s Law.
Bereaved parents of children who lost their lives to suicide whilst studying at university are raising the alarm on what they perceive to be a sector-wide, systemic failure to support and safeguard the wellbeing of students. The LEARN Network (TLN) comprises 25 bereaved families, who are all united in their belief that the respective universities of their children failed to take reasonable steps to prevent their unnecessary deaths – by, for example, neglecting to make reasonable adjustments, to share information on the wellbeing of students, and to identify the indicators of a struggling student before the tragic culmination of such individuals taking their own life.
TLN is drawing attention to the remarkable fact that universities are completely unregulated in their conduct, meaning students are owed no statutory duty of care by their higher education institution. The absence of such legal protections has, TLN argues, resulted in preventable deaths of young people attending university, and restricted bereaved families and parents from seeking any kind of recourse or accountability for the loss of their loved ones. TLN is therefore campaigning to make a duty of care in higher education institutions a legal requirement – so that future generations of students can expect that their universities owe them a statutory duty of care – to prioritise their wellbeing, to take steps to ensure their safety, and not subject them to psychological harm. They have launched a petition to have the issue of a legal duty of care debated publicly in parliament and need 100,000 signatures before 19 March 2023 for this to happen.
Running parallel to the work of TLN is the campaign undertaken by Rupert and Alice Armstrong Evans, the parents of Harry, who lost his life to suicide in 2021 whilst studying at the University of Exeter. Another student on Harry’s course had died by suicide at Exeter the previous year, and Harry’s parents feel had they known this information, they might have been more conscious of the potential dangers their son faced. In correspondence with The Glasgow Guardian, the Armstrong-Evans family commented: “The key clauses of ‘Harry’s Law’ relate to the accurate recording and publishing of student suicide information… Without accurate and accessible information, it is impossible to solve the problem. The cost is minimal because the information already exists. Our objective is to make student suicides never events.” A petition has been signed by The Glasgow Guardian along with 18 other student papers across the UK for the introduction of ‘Harry’s Law’, which would require coroners’ courts to inform universities when one of their students dies by suicide.
An investigation undertaken by The Glasgow Guardian highlighted that 43 University of Glasgow students died in the years 2008-2019. When asked as to the nature of these deaths, the University responded that they do not record this information, and when further probed as to the rationale behind this decision commented that “People who end their lives do so for many reasons which can be complex, and research shows the decision to enact a suicide plan may have been reached over a number of years. It would not be helpful to families or students to speculate on any cause of death.”
Despite the University’s assertion that recording the number of student suicides would not be “helpful” to families or students alike, there seems to be clear consensus amongst families who have suffered such bereavement that publication of that information would not only have been helpful, but crucial to preventing further death. Lee Fryatt, a member of TLN who lost his son Daniel to suicide whilst he was studying at Bath Spa University in 2018 observed that: “If universities keep saying they want suicide prevention strategies, then they need to start looking at what’s going on, have a starting point, have some data – otherwise how can you know if the policies you implement are having a positive effect?” Indeed, the lack of available data both from the University of Glasgow and more broadly throughout the sector makes it impossible to evaluate the extent of the issue and resisting “speculation” on the nature of student deaths can arguably be interpreted as an avoidance of closer scrutiny and accountability. Lee summarised the irrationality of such an approach – “I find it really ironic that in an institution that talks about academic rigour and evidence-based approaches, they resist any notion of starting to properly analyse and collect data around these issues… The point is that without accountability you don’t get change, and you don’t get progress, because there’s no pressure to.”
As such, TLN’s campaign for a statutory duty of care, and the campaign of the Armstrong-Evans to require universities to publish the numbers of student suicides seem to interrelate. If universities aren’t collecting data on the number of student suicides, they cannot provide a useful measure of how effective their student wellbeing policies are, and parents can’t assess the competency of institutions in providing pastoral support. Without a duty of care, there is no motivation or requirement at all for a university to implement any kind of policies around proper conduct for the safeguarding of students’ wellbeing. In the absence of either of these mechanisms, students have been needlessly losing their lives to suicide for years, failed by institutions that are not designed or even legally required to protect them.
Robert and Margaret Abrahart have led the charge for a statutory duty of care in the higher education sector following the death of their daughter Natasha at the University of Bristol in 2018. Natasha took her life in the context of a regime of oral assessments that had exacerbated her pre-existing condition of chronic social anxiety disorder and caused her to become depressed. In the aftermath of her death, Natasha’s parents found that the University had, shockingly, failed to internally share or act on crucial information around their daughter’s deteriorating mental state, which culminated in her taking her own life the morning of a major oral assessment that was to be given in front of a large number of people. When The Glasgow Guardian spoke to the Abrahart family, Robert remarked – “For the University, if you knew someone was suicidal, all the alarm bells should be ringing – they shouldn’t be putting her through the worst possible experience of her life knowing she was suicidal.” The civil action case undertaken by the Abraharts found that University of Bristol had caused Natasha’s death by failing to make reasonable adjustments for her disability under the Equality Act, but that ultimately a duty of care didn’t exist, legally, in the higher education sector. In making this discovery, the Abraharts felt it was imperative that such a duty be implemented. Margaret highlighted that “The importance of duty of care goes back to the legal definition of disability, because we spent a long-time proving Natasha did have a disability, but suppose you didn’t? Suppose you were only depressed for the last couple of months, and it could have the same impact on your ability to do an assessment and you wouldn’t be covered? Which is why the duty of care is important because then everyone is covered, and you don’t have to justify why you meet the criteria for support.”
The Glasgow Guardian also spoke to Hilary Grime, mother of Phoebe Grime, who was in her second year of study at Newcastle University when she took her own life. Hilary, another member of the LEARN Network, shares the view that a legal duty of care in higher education, as well as more transparency is imperative to preventing further tragedy. Hilary drew particular attention to the disingenuous perception of a ‘moral’ duty of care that many universities put forward: “Universities say, ‘oh we have a duty of care’ – where is it? Show me the evidence – there isn’t one, anywhere. It’s so vital, and universities have really slipped through the net with this. The fact that the staff are covered by a legal duty of care and the vulnerable students aren’t – why?”. Fundamentally, it appears crucial lessons are not being learnt from these tragic instances. In reference to Newcastle University, Hilary remarked – “Are they really learning from what happened? Are they learning from the series of events that lead to Phoebe taking her own life? Well, they’re not hearing anything from my side, because they don’t want to – it should be about getting together to work out what happened and how to avoid it, but they’re so busy denying it, saying it’s not their fault, that there’s nothing gained from learned experience.”
The LEARN Network have conducted what they refer to as a “parental analysis” of the common issues that have re-emerged in the events leading up to a number of student deaths. They have identified that there is an institutional, sector wide failing to understand and follow critical procedures, a culture of fear of doing the wrong thing and a misunderstanding of privacy guidelines, a lack of clarity on pastoral accountability, poor inter-departmental information sharing that leads to an ‘academic-only’ view of students, and an unwillingness to look upstream at the risk factors for student suicide that risks further death. Their findings are a damning indictment of the state of student welfare in higher education. Crucially, without a duty of care, universities are at liberty to ignore and suppress all of these issues, with no legal consequence.
In our conversation, Lee Fryatt drew attention to the anomaly of the higher education sector’s lack of regulation compared to other public bodies and organisations. He pointed out that they are essentially run as charities, and yet do not face any scrutiny from the charities’ commission, they’re not regulated by OFSTED, and they regularly seek exemptions from legislation such as The Equality Act. “The only light touch regulation that now exists is the Office For Students (OFS), and if you look at what the OFS regulatory framework is it’s all about academic provision… None of it inspects how you are treated while at university.” Lee went on- “What you’ve got in the university sector is they mark their own homework, and they keep the grades to themselves. Universities are all separate business entities, so what goes on in one university is not publicly shared, and it’s very easy for a university to dampen down and suppress knowledge of bad practice, because there’s nobody independently looking at what’s going on.”
Margaret and Robert stressed that the importance of a duty of care is about more than just suicide prevention- which is the very “tip of the iceberg”. They’re calling for a “student first cultural shift”, which would require universities to be legally required to do all they can do to prevent any inadvertent harm done to students– which encompasses issues of housing, provision of financial support and reasonable academic adjustments as well as the provision of mental health support. This felt particularly pertinent to our situation in Glasgow, where the University’s negligence and misconduct in the face of a student housing crisis, and the abandonment of accommodation guarantees, has led to considerable increases in student homelessness and an inevitable incline in psychological distress within the student population. There is however no mechanism by which to hold the administration to account for this.
Lee Fryatt summarised the position as such: “People go to university to get educated. People go to university to have a future. There’s too many young people at the moment where that doesn’t happen, and what I want is to see that change, that if students for whatever reasons start struggling, it won’t be a lottery, that they’ll get their support… If we get that then we stop the end process which is the tragedy of suicide and self-harm and students leaving their studies because it’s become too mentally challenging for them. University should not be a war of attrition to get through.”
If things are to change, we as students need to mobilise around these causes. The work of Harry’s parents and TLN has made evident that existing systems need urgent reform. Between them, Harry’s Law and a statutory duty of care have the potential to save lives and avoid further preventable tragedy – and if implemented will change the landscape of higher education for students permanently. Their campaigns deserve our support – you can find the respective petitions to sign here:
Legal duty of care: