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MP says universities should be legally responsible for students' mental health

PUBLISHED: 12:31 16 September 2019 | UPDATED: 14:05 16 September 2019

Norman Lamb, who is calling for universities to be held legally responsible for students' mental health, at his home in Norwich. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

Norman Lamb, who is calling for universities to be held legally responsible for students' mental health, at his home in Norwich. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk

A Norfolk MP has called for universities to be legally obligated to look after students' mental health.

The former Liberal Democrat health minister, Sir Norman Lamb, has called for a student mental health charter to end the "unacceptable postcode lottery" of pyschological support at universities in the UK.

He has gathered data on the support available to students at institutions across the country, which revealed some universities did not know or record key mental health statistics including budgets and waiting times, via Freedom of Information requests.

Sir Norman, who recently announced his plans to stand down at the next election, said the picture of varying support between academic institutions was "intolerable", and said: "These figures are unacceptable. Clearly some students are being failed by their universities. The lack of appropriate mental health provision at some universities is intolerable."

The survey revealed:

Norman Lamb at his home in Norwich. Picture: Jamie HoneywoodNorman Lamb at his home in Norwich. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

- Over a quarter of universities have failed to increase or are cutting funding when compared to a peak in the last five years;

- 75pc of universities saw an increase in engagement with university counselling services between 2014-15 and 2017-18;

- And the average longest wait for counselling was 43.5 days - over half the length of a standard university term.

And the survey also showed that many universities lack the ability to track the state of their own mental health services, with:

- Over three quarters of universities unable to provide data on longest wait times for accessing counselling;

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- A third of universities saying they did not record average waiting times for seeing a counsellor;

- And 75pc of universities that responded to the survey being unable to provide any detail on what routes students had been referred by to mental health services.

Sir Norman, who called for a duty of care to placed on universities towards their student, pointed to examples of innovative practice at institutions such as Northumbria, which has created an early alert system, using data such as lecture attendance and deadline completion to track whether students might be suffering from mental ill health.

The north Norfolk MP said: "When the prevalence of mental ill health among students is increasing, it is completely unacceptable that some universities are cutting funding.

"We should be seeing sustained increases - after all, mental health support has historically been way underfunded."

And he added: "What is worrying is that some universities have no handle on the scale of the problem. They are failing to record waiting times; they aren't able to track what their precise spend on mental health is.

"It's outrageous that this should be the state of affairs in 2019.

"It's a total postcode lottery. It's incredibly unfair - in some universities, like Cambridge, you get a clear sense that they're tracking the data and they know what's going on at ground level in a detailed way and using innovative practice.

"Elsewhere, the picture is just very murky.

"It's not good enough. Students ought to know that in return for their tuition fees they'll not only receive an education but also that the institution will demonstrate a duty of care towards them.

"I'm calling for a Charter, enshrined in legislation, which guarantees students' rights to access mental health care and requires universities to take action on suicide prevention."

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