How far is the university legally liable for the students?
Alec Samuels looks at when universities should provide support for students on the premises
How far is the university legally liable for the students, apart from the usual duty of care as the owner occupier of the university premises and the usual duty of care of any institution and its people to the invitees? After all, the students are adults, 18 and over, and normally disgustingly healthy and fit.
However, this is not the full picture: Abrahart v University of Bristol, HHJ Alex Ralston, 20 May 2022. The female student, studying physics in her second year, was required as part of the course and examination to give an oral presentation to the tutor and fellow students in a large lecture hall.
She was an able student, who had been doing well, though recently falling off, grades in performance declining. She was shy, especially with authority, vulnerable, and was diagnosed with chronic social anxiety depressive disorder, and had been receiving mental health medical assistance, known to the university. The impending oral presentation subjected her to severe psychological trauma.
A little before the presentation was due, she took her own life.
The parents sued the university for damages, and succeeded on the basis of indirect discrimination by unfavourable treatment by reason of her disability, of which the university knew or should have known, under the Equality Act 2010; damages £50,000.
Exam anxiety is not uncommon. Most of us, if we are honest, can remember and must admit to such experience, albeit perhaps a good many years ago now. The pressures were on to get the degree, to do well, to improve our chances in life.
The students, young adults, may not be quite so mature and capable as they may like to think themselves. The evidence was that on average some half a dozen students in the university took their own lives year by year. For many it appears that, despite appearances, students do suffer considerable stress, to greater or lesser degree.
So where does the university stand? Must it make a risk assessment in respect of every student? Maintain a watching brief? Ensure that there is an active and watchful personal tutor appointed to every student? Maintain a medical and psychiatric and psychological service in the university? Require an annual medical test? Keep the parents of the adult student informed of the progress of the student? The university is essentially an educational institution, not a medical or psychiatric institution.
Causes of concern
Mental health problems of all kinds are very common throughout society; though often not readily visible. In difficult social and economic times the pressure to get a degree, and a good degree, can be considerable. The covid-19 pandemic and seriously interrupted teaching in the university world has further damaged higher education.
In Abrahart, the university was aware of the difficulty imposed upon the student. She had even exhibited something of a suicidal disposition. The presentation causing the anxiety could have been organised in a smaller setting, with a smaller audience, or perhaps without an audience at all.
So, the university does owe a duty of care to the student. The student pays £9,250 a year for the experience. The student does have vulnerabilities, does suffer stress, especially from the examining activities.
There should be a regular risk assessment, a personal tutor and a proper professional awareness of the potential problems of the course and indeed university life generally. Parents may need to be included, maybe very much against the wish of the student. Reasonable care must be taken.
The teaching scholar may need to be trained in the discharge of the responsibility of the personal tutor in the modern world, a new care competency. The exam system itself may need fundamental rethinking and refashioning. And the law professional schools and the Inns of Court and the Law Society will surely be included.
Alec Samuels is a barrister