Higher Education: Standards

Department for Education written question – answered on 31 March 2023.

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Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what recent assessment she has made of the potential merits of establishing a statutory duty of care on higher education providers.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what the legal basis is for a general duty of care on higher education providers to deliver educational and pastoral services.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Education)

The mental health and wellbeing of young people is a high priority for this government. It is crucial that students get the effective mental health and wellbeing support they need to allow them to flourish at university.

There is already a general duty of care for higher education (HE) providers to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution and, in carrying out these services, HE providers are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their students.

The law of negligence has been developed through case law over many years. Duty of care exists as one of the four key elements for liability in negligence to be found. The existence and application of a duty of care between HE providers and students has not been widely tested in the courts. However, it is understood across the HE sectors, and in legal circles, that the tort of negligence applies in the relationship between a provider and a student.

The department has made reference to the duty of care in relation to those with mental health issues in ‘Prevent’ guidance under ‘When can a duty of care arise?’. This is available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-prevent-duty-of-care-and-the-wellbeing-of-staff-and-students-in-higher-education-he/the-prevent-duty-of-care-and-the-wellbeing-of-staff-and-students-in-higher-education-he-notes-for-trainers.

Students with disabilities, including mental health impairments, are also well protected under the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination and imposes a duty on HE providers to make reasonable adjustments where disabled students are put at a substantial disadvantage.

Given existing duties that apply, the department does not believe a further statutory duty would be the best approach to improve outcomes for students. We have instead made clear our ambition for all providers to back the University Mental Health Charter by 2026. We expect universities to create cultural change around mental health by embedding a whole-university approach to support, as advocated by the charity Student Minds, with student mental health and wellbeing considered across every aspect of university life. We have also asked the Office for Students to allocate £15 million this academic year to support projects focussed on student mental health, such as the online wellbeing platform, Student Space, and establishing better partnership working between providers and NHS services.

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