Petition Create statutory legal duty of care for students in Higher Education

No general statutory duty of care exists in HE. Yet, a duty of care is owed to students, and the Government should legislate for this. HE providers should know what their duty is. Students must know what they can expect. Parents expect their children to be safe at university.

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The mental health, safety and well-being of HE students should be a Government priority. Student engagement, retention and success should be another. Both are indisputably linked to the duty of care students receive.

A duty of care already exists for staff, and for students under the age of 18 in HE. There should be parity in duty of care for all members of the HE community.

This is not a petition for ‘in loco parentis’ or for duplication of the NHS. We only seek parity and legislative clarity on duty of care for all students.

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Government responded

This response was given on 20 January 2023

Higher Education providers already have a general duty of care not to cause harm to their students through their own actions.

Higher Education providers do have a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution and, in carrying out these services, they are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students. This can be summed up as providers owing a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.

Over the last decade, higher education providers have devoted considerable resources to their student support services, and a good deal of support is now widely provided to students who struggle with their mental health. However, tragically suicides do still occur in higher education, and investigations into the circumstances of such deaths have sometimes shown the support offered by the university was not all it might have been. We have encouraged universities to learn from such cases and redouble their prevention efforts. Former Higher Education Minister Donelan wrote to vice chancellors specifically on this subject in both July 2021 and December 2021.

We acknowledge the profound and lasting impact a young person’s suicide has upon their family and friends, and know among the petitioners there are those who have personal experience of these devastating, tragic events. While press narratives often suggest students are an at-risk population, ONS data May 2022 (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/estimatingsuicideamonghighereducationstudentsenglandandwalesexperimentalstatistics/2017to2020) shows a significantly lower suicide rate in HE students compared with the wider population (including students) of similar age. This is supported by Figure 6 from the linked ONS publication, and the third bullet point at the top of the page. We, therefore, feel further legislation to create a statutory duty of care, where such a duty already exists, would be a disproportionate response.

Department for Education

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