Higher Education: Health and Safety

Department for Education written question – answered on 25 April 2023.

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Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment she has made of the potential merits of introducing a statutory duty of care for higher education institutions on student (a) mental health, (b) safety and (c) well-being.

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.

The department is determined to provide students with the best mental health support possible at university. If creating a statutory duty of care in this space was the right way to achieve this, it would have the government’s full backing. However, this government believes creating a statutory duty of care for higher education providers is not the most effective way to improve outcomes for students.

Putting a duty of care on a statutory basis would not necessarily make a difference in practice to what providers have to do or the consequences if their actions mean a student’s wellbeing is harmed. This is because we consider that a duty of care already exists in common law as part of the law of negligence, and it is therefore not necessary to put it on a statutory basis.

There are also other relevant legal protections that already apply. Students with disabilities, including mental health conditions, are protected under the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits unlawful discrimination and harassment because of a disability. It also imposes a duty on providers to make reasonable adjustments where disabled students, including those with mental health conditions, would otherwise be put at a substantial disadvantage.

The government also believes that there are more effective solutions to improve outcomes for students in the near term. It is our view that the most effective way to support student mental health is through a two-pronged approach of funding vital and innovative services and working with mental health experts and the sector to implement best practice.

The department has 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.

The department has asked the Office for Students to distribute £15 million of funding to providers in 2023/24 to support student mental health, including providing additional support for transitions from school or college to university, with a particular focus on providing counselling services for students. This funding will also allow providers to continue to develop better partnerships with local NHS services to ensure that students are able to access support in a timely manner, and not slip between the gaps in university and NHS provision. Partnership working between HE providers and the NHS will improve the care of students experiencing poor mental health by ensuring a more joined up approach to the delivery of mental health support.

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