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Should Universities Owe Students a Duty of Care?

Gemma Shepherd-Etchells

11th September 2023

Whether to introduce a statutory duty of care from universities to students was debated in Parliament after a petition for such gained over 100,000 signatures. It was brought by a group of bereaved families who had lost their loved ones whilst at university to suicide. Wanting to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of students, they considered the fact that a duty of care to young people in education ceases at age 18 is fundamentally flawed.

This became the situation in 1970 when the age of formally becoming an adult was lowered from 21 to 18, meaning that after this age no statutory duty of care was owed to Higher Education students. Providing such a legal duty this campaign group argued would ensure the safety of students and provide them with vital wellbeing services to protect them from reasonably foreseeable harm. They stated this was necessary after the case of Abrahart v University of Bristol (2022) ruled there was no such duty of care between Higher Education providers and students.

The Higher Education Minister Robert Halfon stated in the Parliamentary debate on this subject however that Higher Education providers already have a general duty of care to students and this is sufficient. For they have to provide educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinary competent institution. He found that Higher Education students do not account for any higher proportion of suicide related deaths than any other demographic and therefore imposing a statutory duty of care on Higher Education providers was not necessary. Robert Halfon did however order an independent review into students deaths to learn more and stated that he would establish a Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce. He has also written to all Higher Education Providers asking them to implement the Mental Health Charter by the start of the 2024/2025 academic year, threatening conditions to do such if they not voluntary adopt this.

Questions to consider

  • List four instances with supporting case / statute law where a duty of care already exists.
  • What do you believe are the justifications for and against universities owing a duty of care to students?
  • If a duty of care is owed to students by universities what extra measures would universities need to take?

Further Reading

Research the campaign group #ForThe100 who brought about this debate.

#forthe100

  1. Who are they?
  2. What are their methods to bring about change?
  3. What type of pressure group are they?

Gemma Shepherd-Etchells

Gemma is an experienced Law teacher and examiner.

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