'Universities must provide same care nationwide' says dad of Sheffield student who took his own life
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An estimated 100 students die by suicide every year but, as there is no legal statutory duty of care, grieving parents have no legal power to hold universities to account.
A legal duty of care could ensure all students receive the same level of safeguarding and protection, if put in place by Parliament.
Dr Mark Shanahan, whose son Rory took his own life in 2018, says the standard of care and support offered to students varies from university to university.
Rory was a student at the University of Sheffield, studying systems engineering.
He took a year-long break from his course during his final year due to mental health concerns but he remained determined to complete his degree.
Just days after resuming his studies, on February 20, he took his own life at the student flats where he lived on Glossop Road, in Broomhill.
According to Dr Shanahan, introducing a statutory duty of care would create a minimum standard of mental health care that all universities have to meet.
It would also make universities accountable for the effectiveness of their mental health services, putting pressure on them to improve these processes.
Rory’s dad is part of a campaign group now fighting for this.
“My own experience with the University of Sheffield was that it had not learned from previous suicides and did not learn from the death of my son. Nothing much changed,” he said.
“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.”
In the Government’s response to a petition by campaign group #Forthe100, callng for a duty of care, it 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.
But barrister Georgina Calvert-Lee, who publicly supports the campaign, said students should not be left in such a “precarious situation”.
She said: “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.”
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.
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.”
Liberal Democrat spokesperson Tom Gordon 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.”
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