Parents of a 21-year-old University of Exeter student who killed himself after failing end-of-year exams have called for new legislation requiring universities to publish the number of students who have passed away committed suicide in their establishments.
Harry Armstrong Evans, from Cornwall, was in his third year of a physics and astrophysics degree at Russell Group University at the time of his death in June 2021, which will be inquest this week.
Harry’s parents, Rupert and Alice Armstrong Evans, who have accused the university of shortcomings, want the government to pass what they called “Harry’s Law”, under which universities would have to publish the annual rate of suicide of students in their institution, and which faculty these students were studying.
They say the Department for Education (DfE) should be empowered to investigate and place universities on special measures when the suicide rate exceeds that of the national average. The legislation would also require personal and academic guardians to complete and record their participation in mental health awareness training.
Harry was one of 11 Exeter students believed to have taken their own lives in the past six years, including 20-year-old Joel Rees, who was also studying physics and astrophysics and took his own life in 2017. University said not all had been officially confirmed as suicide by the coroner.
Alice Armstrong Evans said: “When we were looking at university options, Harry deliberately chose somewhere close to home. He was quite shy, but the university proudly advertised great welfare services and pastoral support.
“Nowhere did we read of the number of students who had taken their own lives or even that, just a year before, someone on the same course that Harry had chosen had taken their own life.”
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in May showed the suicide rate for higher education students in the academic year ending in 2020 in England and Wales was three deaths per 100,000 students, the lowest rate in four years.
A University of Exeter spokesperson said: ‘We are deeply saddened by the death of Harry and the loss of the family. The university is fully engaged in the coroner’s inquest this week, which will report the facts and it would be totally inappropriate to comment further until the inquest is complete.
“We can say, however, that we have invested significantly in student wellbeing and wellbeing support in recent years and are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people.
“We are providing support services seven days a week, both on campus and in the community, including throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The health and well-being of students is always the top priority at the University of Exeter.
A DfE spokesperson said a new dataset had also been commissioned to better inform universities’ suicide prevention work.
“The mental health and well-being of students, including suicide prevention, is of paramount importance to the government, which is why this year we have asked the Office for Students to allocate £15 million to student mental health.
In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide hotlines can be found at befrienders.org