Robert Halfon gives detailed response on student suicides
General / Sat 1st Apr 2023 at 04:00pm
HARLOW MP and Minister for Apprenticeships, Robert Halfon, rose on the floor of the House of Commons to answer a question on student suicide rates.
Charlotte Nicholls (Lab-Warrington North)
To ask the Secretary of State for Education, whether she has had discussions with universities on publishing the annual suicide rate of enrolled students.
Robert Halfon (Cons-Minister of State-Education)
Every student death is a tragedy. The department is committed to doing all we can to prevent these devastating events, which we know have a profound and lasting impact on family and friends. The department regularly engages across the higher education (HE) sector, including with universities to ensure that student mental health is well supported.
Following a suicide prevention roundtable, co-chaired by the department and Universities UK, the department wrote to the National Statistician asking the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to publish an updated linked data analysis. The ONS published the refreshed dataset and analysis on May 31 2022, which included HE student deaths by suicide from the 2016/17 to 2019/20 academic years. This can be found here: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/estimatingsuicideamonghighereducationstudentsenglandandwalesexperimentalstatistics/2017to2020. The sector-wide data publication by ONS is an important step in improving suicide prevention across HE.
The department expects all HE providers to take suicide prevention very seriously, providing information and places for students to find help, actively identifying students at risk, and intervening with swift support when needed. Where a tragedy does occur, this must be treated with the utmost sensitivity by a provider. The department supports the Suicide Safer Universities framework, led by Universities UK and Papyrus, which can be found at: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/what-we-do/policy-and-research/publications/suicide-safer-universities. As well as supporting universities to prevent student suicides and support students and families after the death of a student, this framework includes additional guidance on information sharing and postvention guidance (actions after a death by suspected suicide), which can be found here: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/what-we-do/policy-and-research/publications/features/suicide-safer-universities/sharing-information, and here: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/what-we-do/policy-and-research/publications/features/suicide-safer-universities/sharing-information. This provides practical advice on compassionate, confident, and timely support as well as a serious incident review template, which the department encourage providers to complete and learn from to improve their practice.
Supporting student mental health and ensuring action is taken to prevent future tragedies is a high priority for the government. That is why we continue to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Office for Students (OfS), and the HE sector to support the student population. The department has asked the OfS to distribute £15 million of funding to support students transitioning from school or college into HE, and to fund partnerships between universities and local NHS services to provide pathways of care for university students.
We have called on all providers to sign up to the University Mental Health Charter, led by Student Minds and developed in collaboration with students, staff, and partner organisations. The Charter aims to drive up standards of practice across the HE sector.
The department has also appointed university Vice-Chancellor Edward Peck as HE’s first ever Student Support Champion. His role is to provide sector leadership and promote effective practice in areas including mental health and information sharing. Edward Peck has been speaking directly with the families of those who have tragically taken their own life whilst at university. Conversations with him have taken place about this work, so the department can benefit from this lived experience.
We will continue to work closely with experts to ensure that we are taking all necessary steps to prevent suicides among university students.
These deaths are indeed tragic and is progress that measures are being taken to address the issues in HE and FE. I wonder if the systems are too slow to pick up problems early enough. Significant indicators may be being missed for example in schools, long before students move into FE or HE and away from home. Getting help for students in secondary schools remains difficult despite the expansion of SEND. Lessons might be learnt from how some secondary boarding schools put measures in place to help students who become vulnerable and find it difficult being away from home. There's also a need to look at FE and HE institutions and even particular courses where drop out rates rise or are higher than average. Many drop out because of stress and disappear from the system and the stats. The traditional assumption that students have to move away from home to study is an assumption that needs to be challenged and probably stems from the upperclass tendency to send their children to board in private schools. The Open University provided strong evidence against the tradition but it has been largely ignored, treated poorly and underfunded, as pointed out by many very experienced members in the Education debate in the Lords last week. With the advent of AI, online working and the desire to provide centres in every town to provide Lifelong learning there's an opportunity to bring the courses to the students in or very near their home towns, supervised by local tutors and supplemented by the kind of Summer schools the OU offered. Going away to learn is expensive, it can deplete a town of it's most talented people and puts disadvantaged children at an even greater disadvantage. Students who remain in their home towns can be better supported and probably get the traditional three year course done within two years. Universities are business and will always argue against coming a more flexible approach and so we have students inadequately supported who leave or in extreme cases die.
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