The government is to explore introducing an opt-in system that would allow universities to share information on student mental health with parents or a trusted person.
It follows rising concerns about student suicides and the widespread prevalence of social anxiety among young people in higher education.
“We want mental health support for students to be a top priority”
Launching the new approach, universities minister Sam Gyimah announced plans for a new mental health charter that will be awarded to universities to promote student and staff welfare seriously.
It will be developed in partnership with leading charities and higher education bodies. It will explore opt-in requirements for universities so they could share information on student mental health, which is currently against data protection rules.
According to Office for National Statistics figures released this week, there were 95 student suicides recorded in the 12 months to July 2017. The suicide rate was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students with rates higher among young men than young women.
While this was lower than for the general population of similar ages, it follows a cluster of student deaths at the University of Bristol, some of which have been confirmed as suicide.
In addition, a report released last year revealed there had been a fivefold increase in the past decade in the numbers of students disclosing mental health problems.
“We need to do a better job of supporting students than is happening at the moment”
There has been heightened concern in the nursing profession about suicide rates this year. Analysis by Public Health England in March revealed that female nurses had a suicide rate 23% above the national average, while care workers in general also had a higher risk.
The report said: “For females, the risk of suicide among health professionals was 24% higher than the female national average; this is largely explained by high suicide risk among female nurses.”
It is not clear whether the higher risk of female nurses taking their own lives also applies to student nurses.
Mr Gymiah called on university leaders to “avoid failing a generation of students”. He also announced the creation of a Department of Education-led working group into the transition students face when going to university.
“This is largely explained by high suicide risk among female nurses”
It will look at how to ensure students have the right support, particularly in the “critical” first year of going to college, he said in a statement.
Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, has been given a £100,000 grant to lead the development of the new charter.
Its partners will include the UPP Foundation, Office for Students (OfS), National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities UK.
Mr Gyimah said: “We want mental health support for students to be a top priority for the leadership of all our universities.
“Progress can only be achieved with their support – I expect them to get behind this important agenda as we otherwise risk failing an entire generation of students,” he said.
The minister said that universities had a role of “in loco parentis”. “It is not good enough to suggest that university is about the training of the mind and nothing else, as it is too easy for students to fall between the cracks and to feel overwhelmed and unknown in their new surroundings,” he said.
He added: “This is not a problem that can be solved overnight, but we need to do a better job of supporting students than is happening at the moment.”
Rosie Tressler, chief executive of Student Minds, said: “There is much work to be done to ensure that institutions make mental health a strategic priority, supporting the one in four students and staff experiencing mental ill health.”
“Student mental health must be a priority for all institutions”
Of the proposed new charter, she said: “This programme will stretch and reward universities that commit to the improvement required, providing tools and support to help them get there.
“Together we will transform the futures of the 2.3 million students that are in higher education, whilst equipping the doctors, teachers and business leaders of the future to continue the positive change in wider society,” she said.
Izzy Lenga, vice president for welfare at the NUS, said: “I am so pleased to support to the launch of this charter, and specifically the commitment to reach out to underrepresented groups within the student population, to reinforce the importance of having culturally competent support services.
She added: “Student mental health must be a priority for all institutions and this charter presents a welcome opportunity for students to co-produce the definition of excellence in the field.”