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Natasha Abrahart parents call for statutory university duty of care

Parents of Natasha, who died by suicide in 2018, criticise Department for Education’s petition response

The parents of a student who took her own life have accused the government of “ducking the issue” in its response to calls to introduce a statutory legal duty of care for students in universities.

Natasha Abrahart, who was a student at the University of Bristol, died by suicide before she was due to give a presentation to fellow students in 2018. In May last year, a judge at Bristol County Court ruled that the university had made “insufficient” adjustments for Natasha’s assessment.

In October, the University of Bristol announced that it was planning to appeal the judgment because it was “seeking absolute clarity for the higher education sector around the application of the Equality Act when staff do not know a student has a disability, or when it has yet to be diagnosed”.

Law required

Natasha Abrahart’s parents Margaret and Robert have been campaigning for the government to introduce a statutory obligation for higher education institutions to provide a duty of care to their students. A petition calling for the law has received more than 17,000 signatures.

The Department for Education has responded to the petition, but Margaret and Robert Abrahart criticised the response—which does not commit to the introduction of a statutory duty—for falling short.

“I fear this response was made in the hope that we would go away,” said Margaret Abrahart. “We…will not go away until we have improved the protections for vulnerable university students. We owe it to Natasha, and to all the others who have died far too young, to make sure their deaths were not in vain.”

Robert Abrahart, himself a retired lecturer, said: “The government’s response appears to be an attempt at ducking the issue, and it does nothing to inform the debate about how the universities should keep students safe.”

He added: “If the government agrees with us that students deserve the protection of a legal duty of care then it should introduce a bill in parliament rather than making bland statements. Such a duty should cover not only negligent acts by universities but also negligent failures to act, which the government’s statement also ignores.”

General duty

The Department for Education’s response to the petition states that higher education providers have “a general duty of care to deliver educational and pastoral services to the standard of an ordinarily competent institution”.

“In carrying out these services, they are expected to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of their students,” the statement adds. “This can be summed up as providers owing a duty of care to not cause harm to their students through the university’s own actions.”

A spokesperson for the department said Natasha’s story “is truly heartbreaking and we offer our sincerest condolences to all of her loved ones”.

“The mental health and wellbeing of students, including suicide prevention, is of paramount importance to the government, which is why we have asked the Office for Students to allocate £15 million towards student mental health and asked the Office for National Statistics to provide a more regular analysis of student suicide data,” the spokesperson added.

“Since we appointed Edward Peck as higher education’s first-ever student support champion, he has been speaking directly to bereaved parents to understand how practice in this area can be improved. We are also backing the university mental health charter, led by Student Minds, which supports universities to adopt a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing.”

If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this news item and need support, the Samaritans can be contacted online or via 116 123.