Robert Halfon MP delivers speech on duty of care to students
News / Tue 6th Jun 2023 at 09:48am
HARLOW MP Robert Halfon delivered a vital speech at the Houses of Parliament on Monday as part of the Westminster Hall Debate titled: Higher Education Students: Statutory Duty of Care
Mr Halfon said: “It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for the way he opened the debate. He fairly set out all points of view on this very difficult issue. It has been a deeply emotional debate; we have heard heartrending testimonies from MPs on behalf of their constituents. I hope my remarks will set out some real things that the Government are doing. I will be limited in responding to everyone, because I want to be able to speak to the families here today, and to those watching on BBC Parliament or the internet. I thank Lee Fryatt and the LEARN Network for starting the petition, and all the families. They are rightly calling for students to be better protected when they leave home for the first time for university. Tim Farron said that the selflessness of the families has been clear. He is exactly right. Theirs is a very important description of what is happening, and what everyone has been through.
I know that many people listening to the debate have had painful first-hand experience of losing bright, capable young people to suicide, and it was an honour to attend the parliamentary event last month to personally hear their testimonies. We owe it to the memories of those young people to collectively take strong and effective action that prevents further tragedies. That, above all else, should be what the Government deliver for them, and since being appointed the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education by the Prime Minister last year I have made it a priority for my Department.
Let me set out what our approach will be. The first point is funding and resourcing vital services. I know that that is a concern of the shadowspokesman, Matt Western. I welcome the constructive way in which he set out his argument. The second point is spreading and implementing best practice, and the third is having clear responsibilities for providers and protection for students.
First, to deliver the determined interventions that are needed we absolutely need the right funding. That is why we invested £3.6 million via the Office for Students to establish Student Space. Since its launch in 2020, nearly 300,000 students across the country have benefited from the free mental health resources and confidential support that that online service offers. We have also asked the Office for Students to distribute £15 million this academic year so that support can be targeted towards students starting university for the first time. That funding will also enable effective partnerships between providers and local NHS services so that students can better navigate the pathways for mental health provision. Those NHS mental health services are receiving record funding through the NHS long-term plan. By March 2024, an additional £2.3 billion per year above 2018-19 levels will go into mental health services in England. As a result, a further 345,000 people under the age of 25 will get the mental health support that they need.
A number of Members talked about the mental health charter, especially Paul Blomfield. It has been acknowledged that the university sector has made some important strides in recent years to develop clear mental health support frameworks, working with charities and experts. The suicide-safer universities framework provides guidance on suicide prevention for university leaders. There is also now postvention best practice on providing compassionate and timely support after a suspected suicide. Building on those foundations, Student Minds developed the university mental health charter, setting out the principles for a whole-university approach to mental health. That includes the need for mental health training relevant to the role of individual staff—an issue that I know the LEARN Network has raised.
The associated charter programme is not a panacea but a process—one that enables continuous improvement and that has already raised standards in the sector. As has been mentioned, I have written to ask all universities to sign up to the mental health charter programme by September 2024. It is right that just 61 universities are already part of the charter programme. I know that that concerns my hon. Friend Mrs Grant, and I agree that it is time the rest got onboard. It is time that parents and students have the confidence that a safety net is in place, whatever university they have chosen to study at.
Providers that do not have degree-awarding powers are not eligible but can still follow the charter’s principles, and there is an Association of Collegesmental health and wellbeing charter for colleges. My hon. Friend Angela Richardson talked about parity of esteem, and about how FE is doing these things and universities should be doing them as well. She is absolutely right. I thank all the further education colleges and providers for all they do to support learners with mental health difficulties.
I am confident that higher education can meet this challenge. However, I have made it clear that if the response is not satisfactory, I will go further and ask the Office for Students to look at the merits of a new registration condition on mental health. To those who fear it would not have the right impact, I want to be clear that any breach of such a condition would be subject to the same sanctions as breaches of other registration conditions.
I have been asked about the student support champion. For the record, I should declare that I was made an honorary professor of Nottingham Trent University when I was Chair of the Education Committee. We appointed Professor Edward Peck as the first ever student support champion in 2022, and I am pleased that he is in the Public Gallery to observe this debate. I am indebted to him for all his support and wise advice.
Professor Peck has worked with the LEARN Network to identify four more areas where providers should go further to protect students’ mental health. First, providers need to identify students at risk early, with pastoral care well before they reach crisis point. UCAS has worked hard to improve disclosure of mental health conditions by breaking down stigma and promoting the benefits of having reasonable adjustments in place from day one. Providers are already finding effective ways to identify students who have not yet disclosed but need help, such as Northumbria’s innovative use of student data analytics. We need to waste no time in rolling this out, but there needs to be a clear action plan, backed by the sector and students, to ensure that it happens.
Secondly, higher education needs to get behind a university student commitment on more personalised and compassionate academic processes, so that students are dealt with sensitively when they face course dismissal or receive difficult assignment results. The LEARN Network has raised the importance of that issue, and has asked for students to be treated fairly. Under the commitment, providers would review their procedures to ensure that the circumstances of individual students are considered, including their mental health.
Thirdly, lessons from existing reviews of student suicides need to be shared more widely, which I know some bereaved parents have been calling for. To ensure that that happens, we will commission an independent organisation to carry out a national review of university student deaths. That is the best way to ensure that local reviews are done rigorously, to learn from these tragic events and to prevent lives from being lost. My right hon. Friend George Eustice talked about the suicide data issue. I will come on to what we are doing. I mentioned Professor Peck and the review, and it is perhaps something we could look at in relation to that. As my right hon. Friend knows, the Office for National Statisticshas published national data on student suicides.
I know that there are bereaved families listening today who would particularly like to see Universities UK guidance on sharing information with trusted contacts effectively adopted. That has been raised by a number of Members. Of course, where possible, information should be shared with parents. There may be circumstances where students do not want to share. They may be adults; there may be issues with family breakdowns or personal issues that mean they do not want to share with parents, but having a point of contact is exactly right.
As of May 2023, a Universities UK survey showed that 93% of members have adopted or are adopting the guidance on information sharing, so we should start to see a change in practice. Ensuring that best practice on information sharing with trusted contacts, whether parents or otherwise, is fully implemented will be a key focus of the implementation taskforce. The taskforce will set targets for improvement, which I will come on to.
As I have mentioned, Professor Peck is chairing a new higher education mental health implementation taskforce, with its outputs reporting directly to me. It will include bereaved parents, students, mental health experts, charities and sector representatives. Of course, where I am able to involve the shadow Minister, I will be pleased to do so.
The full debate can be found below.
What are you going to do regarding the 9% millstone around the necks of hardworking graduates? Why am I and thousands of others forking out £150+ a month when I received a substandard university education?
Scrap the fees, let our young people get an education, if that's what they choose, without the debt. Debt = stress, easily alleviated if you cared.
A good thing I noticed is: "we will commission an independent organisation to carry out a national review of university student deaths. That is the best way to ensure that local reviews are done rigorously, to learn from these tragic events and to prevent lives from being lost."