Students leaving the nest as adults: UPDATE. Another student death in the English Department at Bristol University.
Last week the Bristol Post again had the sad duty to report the death of yet another student, Bertie Crawford, who was ‘thought to have taken his own life’. Not widely reported was the coincidence of both Ben Murray and Bertie Crawford studying in the same department at Bristol University as first year students last year. They must surely have known each other at some point in the year.
Bertie Crawford appears to have engaged fully with the student life and was writing for the University of Bristol Student Newspaper, ‘The Tab’. In the spirit of press freedom, The Tab had reported extensively on the recent student deaths and raised many valid concerns. It was therefore a terrible thing for them to have to report on the death of one of their own budding writers.
The impact of a suicide on staff and students alike cannot be over emphasised. (see TEFS 15th June 2018 ‘Tragedy on Campus – now is the time to act to prevent suicides and mental distress’)
The second incident occurring so close to the earlier one, and in the same department, will set off all of the alarm bells and the staff will need a lot of support at this time. Now is the time for the University to redouble their efforts to support everyone that have been affected. Our thoughts must be with them and the family of Bertie who will be numb with shock.
From personal experience, I can only offer a simple piece of advice in the dark times of such loss and bereavement; “Only worry about what you can change – don’t dwell on what cannot be changed”.
James Murray on the role of lecturers in Universities:
“They are loaded up with academic work, but they really are the closest in the front line on mental health care to understand what the students are doing”
Calls this week for the law on Data Protection to be relaxed to enable universities to contact parents if a student is having difficulties are genuinely heartfelt. A university colleague often used to say: “Remember that they are someone’s child”. Those staff with children of their own feel for any parent in tragic circumstances.
James Murray, whose son killed himself at Bristol University, describes the situation that led to the tragedy and calls for an ‘opt out system’ to be in place with regard to mental health concerns . This effectively means that parents should be contacted unless the student has specifically asked them not to contact their parents. Bristol University has considered an ‘opt in’ course of action whereby students indicate that they would like parents to be contacted if they get into difficulties with their mental health. However, defining when this point has been reached will be difficult. One could argue that anxiety is normal for most students and that they all need reassurance and support at various stages of their education. Either way, the response of young adults at the outset is likely to be: “Don’t tell my parents anything”. The problem of supporting vulnerable students will not be solved by a system of either ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’. Indeed, it could exacerbate the situation in some instances. It also gives a university a ready ‘get out’ clause if something goes wrong. They can simply state that they had contacted the parents. This would be on top of the current practice of simply offering a student advice from a central student support service which they may not take up.
Sam Gyimah, the Minister of State for Education and with responsibility for Universities, also called for parents to be informed with: “Stories of students who threaten to take their life – but the university didn’t do anything to inform their parents because it’s not for them to do so until after they had done it – are incredibly sad and tragic” . It is tragic but it needs to be thought through a lot more. Relationships with parents may not always conform to the comfortable perceptions that stable and well off families have. Many students are estranged from their families or have strained relationships whereby they have no support. The charity ‘Stand Alone’ offers advice to students across the UK who are coping alone and have reported on the high levels of estrangement in ‘Prevalence of Family Estrangement’ . This sad fact is reality for many students.
The use of the term ‘snowflake students’ does not help and now looks very hollow since it was first coined by media and university leaders in 2017 . They were more concerned about student satisfaction scores used to rank universities and having to give into student demands. It came to mean more as a general pejorative term for students amongst the wider public and failed to account for the genuine need to support students that are vulnerable. It seems shameful in retrospect. Students and indeed their parents have a right to ask for more help and in turn the staff must be afforded time and resources to be able to offer help. Instead, reports of excessive workloads bearing down on university staff abound . I have even heard senior managers refer to squeezing as much as possible out of the workforce by “sweating the assets”. Instead they might protect their assets.
A tragedy in the making.
Ben Murray was only 19 years old when he became the third Bristol University student to die in three weeks. It is reported that he had sought help for anxiety and had been referred to student support. He was about to withdraw from Bristol University when he killed himself. The fact that the University was unable to inform his parents of what was happening, due to data protection laws, may come as a surprise to some. But he was over 18 years old and no longer in the formal care of his parents. This was not a surprise to me or other university staff across the UK. Instead the shock that I found was a reported statement from his father, James Murray: “One of the aspects of Ben’s removal from university which we later discovered was the absence of face-to-face meetings” . If correct, this is astounding. A tutor or staff member should have been following up the student all along. Sometimes this is difficult if the student is not showing up, but a personal tutor system should have been working more proactively.
What should a University be doing and whom can students trust?
Bristol University is the same as any other university in the UK in my experience in having an established personal tutor system . This practice harks back to an era when student numbers were much fewer and students could genuinely get to know a specific tutor well over the time of their studies. With rising numbers of students, it should be expected that the system would be strained. All students in Bristol are allocated a lecturer as a personal tutor to assist with their academic studies. The students are divided across all of the academic staff in a Department. Their advice to students states that, in addition to academic advice, they may discuss “anything else you feel relevant”. The advice also states that: “Usually, you’ll have the same academic personal tutor throughout your time at Bristol, unless this is not possible, or you request otherwise.” Importantly it demands that: “As a minimum you should expect at least six meetings during your ﬁrst year”. The tutor that was allocated to Ben must also now be offered help and professional support as a matter of urgency.
My experience has been in a system identical to that at Bristol. However, the system breaks down if not adhered to strictly by both parties. Students tend to prefer to seek advice from those actually teaching them in their first year and not staff tutors that they have yet to meet to teach them.
Also, there is a very important matter of trust. In school , their class sizes were much smaller and teachers were more readily available. A longer standing relationship with their teachers, that bred trust, was possible. On the other hand, a University 'assaults' students with many layers of uncertainty about whom to trust. I doubt if many would divulge personal problems to staff they barely know, if at all. In teaching a large first year class for 37 years, I found that many students approached me for help, although I was not their tutor. Often they were reluctant to talk with the allocated tutor or were referred back to me because I was doing the teaching at the time. The issue of whom to trust was always there in the background.
Is there anything else that you want to tell me?
I have lost count of the number of times I thought that the academic issues were covering up something else. Under a promise of strict confidentiality, I asked the ‘magic question’: “Is there anything else that you want to tell me?” This often revealed a range of problems such as broken family relationships, demanding part-time jobs, poor finances, drug and alcohol problems, health issues, undeclared mental problems or learning difficulties, abusive relationships, family bereavement or terminal illness in a close family member. The reluctance to seek help was always to the fore and persuasion was usually needed. This inevitably took a toll on my time but was necessary in the circumstances as it inevitably was the first time that they had discussed it. Other sympathetic and trusted colleagues also took a considerable burden with no credit because it was all behind a veil of confidentiality. With those staff also coming under excessive pressure with respect to their research performance and the implementation of REF, it is no wonder the system has become frayed at the edges. Some less experienced staff feel even more overwhelmed by the multiple demands. One told me that he had been 'advised' to work on research from home to avoid students in order to cope.
The role of the Data Protection Act.
The statement below is one of the many that are typically put out by all universities.
“The Data Protection Act does permit the University to disclose information in certain exceptional circumstances; these are usually life or death situations. In such cases the routine need to obtain consent before disclosing personal data may be waived.”
This effectively inhibits virtually any disclosure without the permission of the student and in many cases does protect their interests as adults. There are many difficult circumstances that can adversely affect their lives to consider here. Not all are apparent at the start.
There are ways and means to counter this to a small extent without disclosing information. Students usually list a home address when matriculating and a home contact number. In my experience, the administration of an academic Department or School sends a postal letter to the parent’s home addressed to the student. This would at least be likely get the parents to contact the student. But that alone may not be enough. If a student is not attending classes and doesn’t respond to tutor requests, emails or calls, another possible route to take is to phone the parent’s home to ask to speak with the student. No message need be left other than you are trying to contact the student. It has worked for me as a tutor in some circumstances and resulted in the student finally coming in for advice.
Trust is the essence of being able to give advice.
However, this is ‘sailing very close to the wind’. There are circumstances where even this tactic would be impossible or unwise. As a lecturer or tutor you would have to know something about the student in earlier meetings. Also many parents contact university lecturers to ask how their adult children are doing. This is a ‘no go’ area for lecturers and explaining this as carefully as possible can still cause anger amongst some parents; especially when they are very concerned. Telephone conservations with such parents can be very difficult in any circumstance. Similarly, the student may be estranged from their parents and contact is unwelcome on one or both sides. A university is often unaware of this and it may only emerge when talking in confidence to a tutor they trust. Trust is the essence of being able to give advice. It is hard to stay silent when a parent declares that they have had no contact with their son or daughter for over a year, but you must. Equally, some parents simply do not care or the family may have split up. I have helped several students who volunteered to me that one of their parents was terminally ill. In one case the other parent had left the home as a result and this is not uncommon. In many cases the student did not want to seek help from student support services although advised to do so. As a result, my support and help effectively bypassed the other support available and remained strictly confidential. Being a lecturer in Northern Ireland, I was also unfortunate enough to have to advise students who were under paramilitary coercion and threat. I quickly learned that the possible permutations of relationships with parents and others are many and that a simple solution is not always visible.
The last word.
Speaking at the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education, Sam Gyimah reiterated his call for providers to see themselves as being in loco parentis for vulnerable young students who were living away from home for the first time.
He has a fair point and this is really the solution in the end. But he must remember that staff workload will increase, particularly on those that see the students in classes most often and whose careers are under even greater pressure with REF demands. The Office for Students might do well to look at how this is balanced when making more demands.
But the last word goes to James Murray speaking at the same conference on the role that lecturers had to play. He is quoted below and he has hit the ‘nail on the head’. Universities must not duck this problem. Redoubling efforts with more experienced tutors in the front line and more training for staff based upon real experience with students and not just procedures are urgently needed.
“They are loaded up with academic work, but they really are the closest in the front line on mental health care to understand what the students are doing” 
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.
If you are distressed then always seek help.
Nightline has a searchable site that gives links to volunteers in your local area. See: https://www.nightline.ac.uk/want-to-talk/
 The Guardian 15 June 2018. Let universities alert parents about students' struggles, says father. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jun/15/let-universities-alert-parents-about-students-struggles-says-father
 Times Higher Education. 14th June 2018. Minister renews call for universities to be ‘in loco parentis’. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/minister-renews-call-universities-be-loco-parentis
 Stand Alone. https://www.standalone.org.uk/
The Prevalence of Family Estrangement 2014: Ipsos MORI. https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/StandAlonePrevalenceRESEARCH3.pdf
 The Telegraph. 8th January 2017. Universities warned over 'snowflake' student demands. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/08/universities-warned-snowflake-student-demands/
 UCU Workload Campaign. Workload and stress.
 University of Bristol. Personal Tutoring. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/students/study/academic-support/personal-tutoring/