– official newspaper of the University of Glasgow
Niamh Flanagan, Deputy Editor-in-Chief
20th November 2022
The case of Natasha Abrahart highlights the importance of a legally defined duty of care for universities toward their students.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that our University and others across the country owe students a duty of care in regard to their wellbeing and personal safety. With school leavers in Scotland being as young as seventeen when they begin university, the pressures of independent living whilst undertaking higher education all too often have significant adverse impacts on the mental health of young people. Widely referred to as a “crisis”, student mental health in the UK has continued to worsen over the past decade, with an estimated 270,000 students seeking mental health support across the UK this year alone.
270,000 is a huge figure, and it can be difficult to visualise what that means in real, or human terms. The figure averages out at over 2000 students per UK university seeking mental health support in the past year. Surely, in order to adequately support such a volume of students, each with complex mental health needs influenced by personal circumstances, universities should have in place a statutory duty of care, a legally defined obligation that student experience can be measured against. As parents of Natasha Abrahart found out this year, no such duty exists in common law.
Natasha Abrahart was 20 years old, and a second-year physics student at the University of Bristol, when she took her own life on 30 April 2018. Natasha had been diagnosed with chronic Social Anxiety Disorder a few months previous to her death. In May 2022, a ruling found that the University of Bristol had caused the death of Natasha Abrahart in failing to make reasonable adjustments for her condition, resulting in prolonged suffering leading to her suicide. However, the ruling stipulated that the University, in placing Natasha on a regime of oral assessments identical to that of students who did not suffer from her condition, had failed in its duties to her under the Equality Act. The judge did not find that the University had any extended legal duty of care to provide psychological support to Natasha.
What this ruling makes clear is that under UK law, no university student is owed a duty of care from their educational institution. Whilst many universities, our own included, make reference to a duty of care in their wellbeing policies, the duty they refer to is simply a moral one, as should a university fail to perform said duty, they face no legal liability.
This Autumn, the University of Bristol attempted to appeal the ruling made earlier this year, an attempt which was denied by the court. Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart spoke outside the court following the ruling, of their bright, diligent, and hardworking daughter, who had loved her subject, who was forced to watch her dreams of the future fall apart as she was subject to unnecessary psychological trauma by an institution that should have protected her. Natasha’s story is unspeakably tragic. Heartbreakingly, it is far from the only of its kind.
Official estimates predict that 64 students killed themselves in the 2019-20 academic year, which is the most recent available data on the issue. The Abrahart family, along with 25 other bereaved families who have lost their children to suicide during their time of study, are petitioning the government to implement a legal duty of care within higher education toward students, forming a group named the LEARN network. Amongst such parents is Hilary Grimes, whose daughter Phoebe killed herself whilst studying philosophy at Newcastle University in 2020. Phoebe struggled with the conditions of lockdown, feeling isolated from teachers and friends, and found her workload unmanageable in this context.
The LEARN network is petitioning for universities to be legally obligated to adhere to standards of pastoral support and thresholds for intervention – to what can be reasonably expected in the name of student wellbeing and support. In the case of Natasha, they both failed to do what could be reasonably expected and were proven not to be legally liable for such a failure. Her parents are rightly outraged, and their battle to change this for future students is commendable. Calls for a statutory duty of care have been dismissed by Universities UK – who claim that “Universities go beyond their legal requirements to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of their staff and students” – a statement which tackles the root of the issue in its admission that prioritising mental and health and wellbeing of students is beyond the legal requirements of higher education institutions.
An investigation this summer found that 30 University of Glasgow students had died between 2018-2022. When asked as to the nature of the deaths of students, the University responded that they do not record the nature of the deaths of students and as such had no record of the number of student suicides. Whilst not all 30 deaths may be attributable to suicide, it is fairly safe to assume, in the absence of properly recorded data, that a proportion of them must be. If the University is failing even to record student suicides, it is clear that it is definitely not being held accountable for the role it played as an institution in preventing them.
Young people coming to university are at the very start of their lives, careers, buoyed by the potential of what higher education can offer them and the experiences it provides. At its best it is a time like no other, for nurturing academic passions, meeting new people, and widening life experiences. But whilst university provides students with a set of conditions capable of facilitating freedom and self-discovery, that same set of conditions can also be conducive to an experience of distress, of being overwhelmed, or struggling to find your feet. Either experience is completely normal – but the latter experience should never need to culminate to the extent that a student takes their own life. That is where higher education institutions have a duty to intervene for students, to provide pastoral support, and to make reasonable adjustments.
A statute on student safety will come too late for Natasha Abrahart and countless others like her. Her story should serve as a testament to just how vital such legislation is to ensure the safety of future generations of students, and holding universities to account for their obligation, both legal and moral, of enacting a duty of care.