By Milan Perera, Deputy Editor
In a parliamentary debate on Monday, June 5, Robert Halfon MP, Minister for State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education asked the universities across the UK to adopt The University Mental Health Charter Framework by September 2024 under the pain of facing potential licensing restrictions.
MPs were debating the petition, ForThe100 which says universities and colleges should have a legal duty of care towards students.
Currently, universities bear no statutory obligation to offer duty of care to their students. The petition which began on March 19, 2023 calls for the universities to step up their mental health support to prevent suicides among their students.
The petition which received 128,292 signatures before being closed was debated in Parliament by MPs on Monday June 5, 2023.
It is reported that every year nearly 100 university students take their lives in the UK. Although each case is unique, universities are called to implement robust measures to prevent such tragedies happening in future.
#ForThe100 was launched by The LEARN Network with the auspices of bereaved parents who lost children to suicide while completing their university studies.
Among those who travelled to House of Parliament for the debate were Bob and Maggie Abrahart, whose daughter Natasha took her own life at the University of Bristol, in 2018.
Addressing the chamber was Kerry McCarthy, MP for East Bristol, who said:
‘As a Bristol MP, I have been in touch with the vice-chancellors of the University of the West of England—who is the national lead on mental health—and of the University of Bristol to try to get assurances that they are taking this issue seriously. I believe they are.’
Furthermore, she pointed to the disproportionate focus on ‘big universities’, reiterating the importance of working with other institutions that are ‘less in the spotlight’ to address the issue:
‘..the focus is very much on the big universities, but we also need to work with other further education establishments and those that are less in the spotlight.'
The University Mental Health Charter is a set of evidence-informed principles to support universities to adopt a comprehensive approach to mental health and wellbeing of their students.
Addressing the debate, Robert Halfon MP, Minister for Higher Education, pointed out that he has sent letters to Universities in the UK to sign up to the University Mental Health Charter by September 2024. He went on to say that 61 universities are already part of the charter programme.
Expanding on the issue, he said:
‘The first point is funding and resourcing vital services... The second point is spreading and implementing best practice, and the third is having clear responsibilities for providers and protection for students.’
The Minister urged the universities to adopt the mental health charter and warned of the possible changes to licensing conditions if they fail to comply.
‘I expect universities, as organisations with an obligation to do the right thing for their students, to rise to the challenge that we have set for them today. As I have mentioned, if we do not see the expected improvements I will not hesitate to ask the Office for Students to introduce a new registration condition on mental health. It is vital that the whole sector takes this call to action seriously.’
The University of Bristol is among the 61 universities signed up for the University Mental Health Charter. It is also one of the first universities to receive the University Mental Health Charter Award. Student Minds, the organisation behind the award commended the University of Bristol for its commitment for student mental health for the past few years:
‘..in the last 2-3 years, Bristol University has taken a strong, structured, whole-university approach towards improving mental health and wellbeing across the whole community.’
Regarding the Minister’s call to universities across the UK to adopt the Mental Health Charter, a University of Bristol spokesperson said:
‘We applied to the Charter to reflect our ongoing university-wide commitment to student mental health; to ensure we are following best practice in the sector and to support our continuous improvement approach.’