The inquest into the tragic death of Bristol University Student, Ben Murray, took place this week; almost 12 months since he took his own life.* The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide earlier today but warned the University that it should make detailed inquiries after each death (BBC News ‘University of Bristol told to learn lessons after Ben Murray's suicide’).
The anniversary of his death is this Sunday the 5th of May. Spring comes as a time of hope for most people but for others it can be a time of considerable anxiety and stress. This is especially the case for students approaching the examination period. As a close colleague of mine often pointed out, “they are all someone’s child”. Our hearts go out to the family of Ben Murray and friends as the inquest goes over again the events of a year ago. The pain is further exacerbated by media reports that he had little or no support in what was his first year at university. The BBC reported that ‘Bristol University student 'received no support' before death’ and the Guardian ‘Bristol told student to leave before he fell to his death, inquest told’. The ripples will spread much further as others affected by similar circumstances reflect on what happened.
What could have gone wrong?
Bristol University, like other universities, has a policy of assigning a personal tutor to all students as they enrol in the university. Bristol is therefore no exception in this respect. Their current policy is for each new student to meet with a tutor in the first week and have at least six other meetings throughout the year. However, my experience has been that some students fail to attend planned meetings. To counter this, some years ago we instigated in my university department a strict reporting policy and short essay assignment to compel students to attend two meetings in the first term; an initial one and then a follow up before first semester examinations. These had to be documented and a record lodged at the department office. A few still managed to slip through the net but the administration always chased them. However, this mostly did not matter too much as the students needing help often interacted with other staff members. This was because it was not unusual to look for help from a staff member who is actually teaching them at the time. The reports in the mainstream media that Ben had not had any ‘face to face’ meetings suggests that he was probably one of those students. However, student newspaper, ‘The Tab–Bristol’, today report further insights into the circumstances with, ‘Bristol student contacted 30 staff members before taking his own life, inquest hears’. Their account of Ben sending so many emails to thirty members of staff “about his struggles with university” is alarming and suggests that something had gone badly wrong. The Tab also gives more insight into interactions with a ‘Senior Tutor’ who had a “telephone meeting” with Ben. This is not especially unusual and it seems that the tutor had correctly recommended to Ben that he contact student support services. But it seems Ben later received an email and an official letter from the university administration requiring him to ‘withdraw’. The media reports refer to the term more starkly as ‘dismissed’ but ‘withdraw’ is the term most used. However, it seems that the terminology caused some confusion and no doubt Ben was unsure initially what this actually meant in practice.
Ben Murray was in his first year in the Department of English. It was therefore a considerable blow when the Bristol Post, with 'Bristol University English student Bertie Crawford dies, thought to have taken his own life' , reported that another student from the Department of English had tragically died in November of 2018 (see TEFS 28th November 2019 ‘Students leaving the nest as adults: Another student death in the English Department at Bristol University.’). He was a first year student with Ben last year and had volunteered as a writer for the student newspaper, ‘The Tab’ that covered the tragic events including his own.
Thankfully, things have improved since and the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Bristol is quoted as saying, “We are also piloting a new process for students required to withdraw from their studies, as was the case with Ben. This was first used after the February Exam Boards this year and means students who are about to be withdrawn are contacted and invited to a meeting with staff from both the academic school and our wellbeing team to explain the decision and the options available for the student.” It is therefore astounding to learn that this was not a requirement until this year. A student being asked to leave, or failing in their first year, is a major thing in their lives and should be approached with caution. Considering that a student at a highly selective and elite Russell Group university should have a solid and proven academic potential means that other factors are more likely to be at play.
The ‘magic’ question.
In my experience, it was not unusual to meet a student who is distressed but only cites ‘academic’ pressures as the problem. However, this is sometimes unconvincing and their behaviours and distress often hides deeper problems. It is then a matter of trust and confidentiality (see TEFS 28th November 2018 ‘Students leaving the nest as adults’). After a guarantee of confidentiality, the magic question is, "Is there anything else that you want to tell me?" Often it then all then pours out; sometimes with tears regardless of gender. This can cover a range of serious problems that seem unsurmountable to the student at the time. Sometimes the issues with family, care responsibilities, jobs, finance and wellbeing and health are too hard to overcome. Many have taken on too much in balancing studies with work, travel, relationships and home. Illness or loss of a job can spell disaster and life doesn't seem fair for them. Loss of a close relationship is magnified. The best option might be to admit that a temporary withdrawal is in their best interests whilst a new strategy is devised. It has been reported that the inquest heard that Ben had hoped to go to Edinburgh University with his long-term girlfriend and his mother said the long-distance relationship was hard for both of them. Options such as completing a first year at Bristol and seeking a transfer to Edinburgh using course credits are possible to explore. However, it would have probably needed time and an intervention early in the year to press home the need to complete some courses at Bristol first.
Pressures on staff a key factor.
The tragedies of last year must have had a considerable effect on the staff and personal tutors and the events this week will serve to bring back difficult memories. The mainstream media concentrate mostly on the lack of a ‘face to face’ meeting. But this must be put into the context of a modern mass education university. Nothing approaching the personal support offered at a school is available in a big university as resources are spread thinly. This comes as a profound shock to many when uncertainty and a fear of failing looms greater than in any of their previous experiences.
In its report today, the Tab – Bristol, noted the ‘Senior Tutor’ who had advised Ben. He is currently listed as an administrator at the university in a role as a ‘Residential Life Adviser’. Earlier he had been an administrator in the Development and Alumni Relations Office. His Linkedin posting reveals that he was dropped into the School of Humanities in the 2017/18 academic year as maternity cover for a year. However, it also reveals that he had been an experienced school teacher of Science in Chemistry and Physics for five years in the past. This would have made him very experienced in dealing with students like Ben.
More pertinent is that the role of ‘Senior Tutor’ in a large university faculty is very demanding for anyone. The scale of the task might be considered a factor here. The Department of English is only one of five departments in the School of Humanities. The HESA statistics for 2017/18 indicate that there were 735 students of English Studies last year. The current department www site indicates that it has “42 scholars”. In terms of being a personal tutor, there are on average 17 to 18 students per member of staff to keep tabs on. A senior tutor has to coordinate the system. My experience is that, in practice, some staff take on many more tutees to lower the burden on those doing more research, teaching and other administration. I was allocated around six new students per year for many years. However, this was a relatively low number because of the size of my research group that I also managed alongside considerable teaching commitments. I found that just one student with serious problems can eat up a lot of time but that the time has to be made for them as a priority. If there are several, then the pressure can be immense as other demands, such as research to satisfy REF, are piled up.
Not just Bristol University.
Workload is a major issue in our universities and I regularly worked for over sixty hours per week; many times straying over weekends to eighty hours per week. The case last year of a long serving lecturer at Cardiff University Business School, Malcolm Anderson, who also killed himself, was a stark reminder of the pressures that exist (see BBC News 'Under pressure' Cardiff University lecturer fell to death. 6 June 2018). The university management was quoted as saying that Dr Anderson was an "outstanding teacher and researcher" who was "caring and unstinting in the time he would give to all". However, TEFS (15th June 2018 ‘Tragedy on Campus – now is the time to act to prevent suicides and mental distress’) also noted that a Business School student had died the same way in the same place in 2012 (Wales Online. ‘23-year-old Cardiff University student dies after falling from building’ 30th May 2012). The impact of that on staff and other students may have lasted longer than many had anticipated.
This is surely a time for reflection and seeking a better way to operate. Most workplaces seem to be operating at or near their capacity and more consideration needs to be taken of what stress can be tolerated. ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ is soon; from Monday 13th to Sunday 19th May 2019. Many universities, including my former university, are holding a series of events to raise awareness. This might be an ideal opportunity for Bristol University to help its students and staff alike at this difficult time.
The last word must go to Ben’s father, James, who got quickly to the crux of the matter. He was reported in Times Higher last year as saying about the staff at Bristol, “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”.
*(Schedules at Avon Coronors Court for 1st and second May 2019)
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.
If you are distressed then always seek help.
The BBC support site offers a comprehensive series of contact details for organisations such the Samaritans (Phone: 116 123 24 hours) and HOPELineUK that offer support, practical advice and information to young people considering suicide and can also offer help and advice if you’re concerned about someone you know. Phone: 0800 068 41 41. In Northern Ireland there is Lifeline that provides support to people suffering distress or despair in Northern Ireland, regardless of age or district( Phone: 0808 808 8000 (24 hours a day).
Nightline has a searchable site that gives links to volunteers in your local area. See: https://www.nightline.ac.uk/want-to-talk/