Every four days on average, over the last 10 years in England and Wales, one student in Higher Education has committed suicide, according to the ONS. Campaigners believe that many of these deaths could have been prevented if there were a clear standard to be followed by universities under a duty of care to their students.
Hilary Grime of Sissinghurst suffered the tragic suicide of her daughter Phoebe, formerly a student of Cranbrook School, at Newcastle University in 2021. Hilary joined forces with a group called The Learn Network, formed by bereaved parents and families to address their shared situation. Hilary and her son Hamish then met with their MP Helen Grant in December 2022, and as a result Mrs Grant sponsored and hosted an event in Parliament in April to raise awareness of the situation amongst MPs and Peers. An online petition was also set up which received over 128,000 signatures and this triggered a parliamentary debate about the need for a statutory duty of care.
The debate, which took place on Monday 5th June in Westminster Hall, was very well attended and many senior MPs delivered powerful speeches. Most supported the motion for a Statutory Duty of Care, whilst citing the tragic losses of their own constituents. Helen Grant’s particularly impassioned speech set out the need for clarity and for consistency in the sector, urging the Minister to look again at the situation.
She said “while some universities are clearly raising their game, others are lagging behind, creating something of a [care and well-being] lottery for students in the UCAS applications process.
A statutory duty of care would set the bar to ‘level-up’ the standard, by requiring all Higher Education Providers to do what might reasonably be expected, whilst maintaining their autonomy in deciding exactly how that will be achieved”.
Hilary Grime, who attended the debate alongside several other parents from The Learn Network said “A statutory duty of care would establish a minimum standard of professional behaviour. This would clarify the responsibilities of universities to help all students throughout their ‘uni journey’, to protect their safety, health and welfare. The current system is not working, and we need to act now. We cannot bring back those we have tragically lost, but we can save and support current and future students.
In Minister for Higher Education Robert Halfon’s concluding remarks, he said “my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald cares passionately about this, and I thank her for all that she has done for her constituents. To be absolutely clear, I am not closing the door on future legislation if that is what is required to make students safer. For now, we are seeking actively to bolster every aspect of the support systems that are available to students.”