Universities could face “immense difficulties” in adjusting their teaching and learning support for students with hidden or emerging disabilities, after a landmark ruling awarded £50,000 in damages to the estate of a student after her suicide.
A judge ruled that the University of Bristol failed to make adjustments to how it assessed Natasha Abrahart’s academic work, leading to her suicide in 2018 while in the second year of an undergraduate physics degree.
The judge found that while Natasha had no declared disabilities when she started her studies, emerging social anxiety caused her to repeatedly avoid attending oral assessments that were required to pass her course. While the university considered making adjustments that may have enabled Natasha to complete the assessments, nothing was done by the time of her death.
Julian Sladdin, a partner at Pinsent Masons law firm, said the outcome of the case was unusual in several respects, including the issue of a university’s support for a student with disabilities, and the way that support – or lack of it – may have resulted in tragedy.
“In terms of general principles, I think the issue with this case is that universities will always be in situations where they have students who may not be statemented, or may not have a clear diagnosis of disability when they arrive at university, and it may be that subsequently they are diagnosed.
“In those situations, obviously, the Equality Act then applies to those students, and there’s a need to make adjustments for those students and provide them with support.
“And I think what this case highlights is the immense difficulty around that in terms of how you apply those adjustments and how that support is provided to the students throughout the course,” Sladdin said.
Sladdin said there was an obligation for universities under the Equality Act to provide support for disabled students, including for their learning and assessment, meaning universities needed to have “effective systems in place to manage that”.
The National Union of Students said the tragedy highlighted the mental health struggles faced by many students at universities and colleges.
An NUS spokesperson said: “We extend our sympathies to Natasha Abrahart’s friends and family after today’s judgment. We are deeply concerned about the mental health crisis, which is only getting worse for students.”
Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator for England, said Bristol and other institutions “will want to carefully consider this judgment” and ensure they are taking steps in response.
“All universities and colleges should have effective measures in place to support students experiencing mental health difficulties. This includes help with continuing their studies and providing access to effective support services,” Lapworth said.
“The OfS will continue to work with a range of partners to help make sure that students from all backgrounds receive timely, tailored and appropriate support when they have concerns about their mental health.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK said the sector was committed to identifying and supporting students who may be at risk.
“Across the UK, we are seeing an increase in the number of young adults experiencing mental health difficulties, and this is reflected in higher education with increasing demand for student support services at our universities and NHS partners.
“UUK has called on [the] government to provide urgent additional mental health funding for universities and to commission student-facing NHS services,” the spokesperson said.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.