Do Universities have duty of care to their students?

In a digital student magazine, the Tab reports “…Universities could finally be forced to have a legal duty for student mental health, under a new bill being introduced to the House of Lords. The bill, introduced by Conservative peer Lord Ralph Lucas, would also require universities to give students the option for the uni to call a parent if the student is in crisis. Titled the “Student Mental Health Bill”, the bill includes measures which would require universities to record contact details, for every student, of a person to be contacted in an emergency, and “set out a duty on such providers to support student mental health”. Lord Lucas told The Tab there has been a “fundamental failing of care” from universities towards their students.” “These are young people in their care. They’re taking on a large debt, you owe them a comprehensive duty of care and interest, and you’re not setting yourselves up to fulfil that,” he said.

Often the duty of care falls on unsuspecting and ill-prepared Personal Tutors which lead to comments such as “…I would certainly be against training in mental health – it belies the assumption that we are, or would be, equipped to deal with such problems – this is way beyond the academic remit and shortchange for any students that might be affected.“ “…why do we insist that grown adults, who have made an informed choice to enrol at university, conform to a pre-determined regime of meetings with a nominated Personal Tutor, often a person they may not have met or encountered during their learning journey”.

These comments are not far and few between and they come from fear that we as tutors are not counsellors and that we may make the matters worse. We are not meant to be counselling, which is indeed correct, but equally these young people do need care and support, some more so than others. The students often tell me that they prefer someone familiar to them instead of connecting with staff they do not know (from Central Services)

I wrote in an earlier blog ‘Should we let parents/carers know of a student’s mental wellbeing?’ that University has a duty of care for these students’ wellbeing while honouring their independence and autonomy; however, when their mental state is not up to making rational and safe decisions this becomes a real challenge.” I also said that “…we need life skills that students can access and apply in order to empower themselves…”

Let’s not wait till this bill becomes a law and it becomes another tick box exercise for the university sector.  Let’s be proactive and give these students tools and processes that they can use easily and effectively so they do not necessarily need external agencies. This in turn can prevent serious mental health issues from developing, giving them true independence and ownership in living their life fully.

 If you are interested in how you can integrate the SEJ to empower your students why not look at the SEJ in Education website    

Dr M Howard-Kishi

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