Universities may face “enormous difficulties” in setting up teaching and learning support for students with hidden or emerging disabilities, after a landmark decree awarded £ 50,000 in compensation for damage to a student’s estate following her suicide.
The judge ruled that the University of Bristol failed to make adjustments to the assessment of Natasha Abrahart’s academic work, leading to suicide in 2018 in her sophomore year of undergraduate physics.
The judge found that when Natasha did not have a stated disability when she started her studies, social anxiety caused her to repeatedly evade the oral assessments required to take the course. While the university was considering adjustments that could allow Natasha to complete the assessment, nothing had been done until her death.
Julian Sladin, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said the outcome was unusual in several ways, including the issue of supporting the university for students with disabilities, and how that support – or lack thereof – could lead to tragedy.
“In terms of general principles, I think the problem in this case is that universities will always be in situations where they have students who may not be declared or do not have an accurate diagnosis of disability when they enter university. , and it may be that they are subsequently diagnosed.
“In such situations, obviously, the Equality Act applies to these students, and there is a need to make adjustments for and support these students.
“And I think this case highlights the huge difficulties in how you apply these adjustments and how this support is provided to students throughout the course,” Sladin said.
Sladin said that under the Equality Act, universities are obliged to provide support to students with disabilities, including for their learning and assessment, which means that universities must have “effective systems to manage this”.
The National Students Union said the tragedy highlighted the mental health problems faced by many university and college students.
A NUS spokesman said: “We extend our condolences to Natasha Abrahart’s friends and family after today’s sentencing. We are deeply concerned about the mental health crisis, which is only getting worse for students. ”
Susan Lapworth, interim executive director of the Office of Student Affairs (OfS), which regulates higher education in England, said Bristol and other institutions “will want to consider this decision carefully” and make sure they take action.
“All universities and colleges should have effective measures in place to support students experiencing mental health problems. This includes continuing education assistance and providing access to effective support services, ”Lapworth said.
“The OfS will continue to work with a range of partners to help ensure that students from all walks of life receive timely, tailored and appropriate support when they have concerns about their mental health.”
A spokesman for UK universities said the sector is committed to identifying and supporting students who may be at risk.
“Across the UK, we are seeing an increase in the number of young people experiencing mental health problems, and this is reflected in higher education with increasing demand for student support services at our universities and NHS partners.
“The UCC called [the] the government will provide urgent additional funding for mental health for universities and order NHS services for students, ”the spokesman said.
In the UK, the Samaritans can be reached on 116 123 and the Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the Crisis Assistance Service is 13 11 14 and the National Domestic Violence Counseling Service is 1800 737 732. In the United States, the Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and the Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international hotlines can be found through www.befrienders.org.