This is a very upsetting story. It concerns the death of an undergraduate student.

Natasha Abrahart was in the second year of a physics degree at Bristol University. She sadly took her life in 2018 — worried about an oral presentation in front of all the tutors & students.  The adjustments needed to help Natasha were simple. Although it was easy to make this presentation less stressful, Bristol University’s Physics Department did not do so.

The ‘Duty of Care’ that a University owes to a student is not straightforward to define. Academics aren’t qualified to make difficult medical judgements.

The Abrahart case though is a very simple one. Natasha’s impairment was plain to see. The adjustment needed was straightforward. All of us involved in University teaching are aware of cases where reasonable adjustments are made to assessment under Equalities legislation. For Bristol University not to have applied a simple adjustment in this case was wrong. Sadly, it had tragic consequences.

Bristol University should have accepted the blame straight away and apologised immediately to the grieving parents. Instead, they fought the parents in the law courts.

Bristol University lost the first five day trial in March 2022. The first judgement on the Abrahart case is here. It is upsetting to read because of a lack of basic humanity on the part of the University. Natasha was in serious difficulties, it was — or should have been — obvious she needed help, and yet no-one did anything to help her. Having lost the court case, the University then quibbled over having to pay for specific parts of the funeral expenses — in particular, for the cost of a headstone and for light refreshments at the reception.

All this is bad enough. But then, Bristol University callously appealed the original decision. This looked like a cynical attempt to bury the Abraharts with legal costs. Of course, private individuals do not have access to the financial resources of a great University. Public money was used to try and browbeat the Abraharts into surrender.

On Wednesday 14th February 2024, the BBC reported here that Bristol University had comprehensively lost their appeal. In fact, they took a real beating. They lost on every single one of the seven grounds on which they had appealed. They now have to pay the Abraharts costs. (The waste of University money that should have been used for teaching and research is another scandalous aspect of this.)

What concerns us here is the light that this sheds on the mindset of University senior management. What kind of mean spirited individuals could possibly have thought any of this legal action was at all appropriate ?

The behaviour of Bristol University towards the parents after the death of Natasha was conscienceless and inhumane. It was completely wrong to be fighting grieving parents in the court under any circumstances. It was petty and vindictive. Those at the top who sanctioned this should lose their jobs. They have fought the Abraharts every step of the way, lost twice at substantial public expense and done enormous reputational harm to Bristol University.

Has anyone resigned ? University senior managers never admit blame or take responsibility. If senior management had any integrity, somebody should by now have apologised to the Abraharts for the legal action. Instead, everybody hides behind anonymity. Despite enormous salaries at the top of university management, there is never any accountability. 

Bristol University are considering another appeal to a higher court. If so, then frankly we academics should consider boycotting the University. We should refuse to give seminars, act as external examiners, recommend the University to our students, and so on.

This callousness has gone on long enough. Senior management at Bristol University urgently need to re-discover some humanity.


Categories: Blog


Anonymous · 21 February 2024 at 11:31

I’m so glad the Abraharts won their case against Bristol University, and I admire their bravery. I hope this sets a precedent for more students and their families, especially in cases of suicide, to win lawsuits against universities, as there is a dire need for this. People need to see examples of humanity winning against faceless, soulless institutions like universities and their corruption.

The depth of depravity, arrogance, and, quite frankly, collective psychopathy it takes for an institution to misuse public money to attempt to bully parents grieving the suicide of their child into silence, especially when the university itself contributed to the suicide, is beyond comprehension and the pale. The case of Natasha Abrahart and Bristol university’s behavior doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, though. I’m sure there have been many more examples of this happening in UK universities that haven’t reached the press.

Time and time again, universities in the UK have shown a chronic and systemic lack of empathy for students, whether they are undergraduate or postgraduate. Students are typically dehumanized and abused by management and many staff, who view them as ciphers, either merely easy money from their tuition fees in the case of undergraduate students or as data mules to exploit to serve a professor’s career in the case of Masters or PhDs.

There is absolutely no sense of a duty of care to students felt in most universities, and when there is, it typically comes from individuals within the system who have somehow managed to maintain their humanity and decency rather than from any framework. The attitude is largely one of “shut up and take it”, and god forbid the student who speaks up to remind universities of their rights or to challenge the institutional violation of these because the likelihood that they will be viciously mobbed (sometimes to death) for doing so is extremely high.

Sadly, I fear that there will be many more tragedies such as student suicides in UK universities, whether of undergrads like Natasha Abrahart or postgraduates like Jessica Small (though the institution in the latter case, or at least half of it, seems to have finally had its chickens come home to roost, and though I’m not a fan of the changes to higher ed, I can’t say I feel any sympathy or empathy for their predicament at all…) before these institutions are finally forced to change their ways and tackle their toxic organizational cultures if indeed they ever do.

YrAthro · 25 February 2024 at 22:27

The case of Jessica Small is indeed very sad — reported here

She was doing a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Kent.

There is indeed a need for more care in our Universities.

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