Universities UK releases report recommending a harm reduction approach to student drug use.

July 2, 2024
Universities UK releases report recommending a harm reduction approach to student drug use.

We are pleased today to see Universities UK’s (UUK) release its ‘Enabling student health and success. Tackling supply and demand for drugs and improving harm reduction’ report. The long-awaited report from the sector body sets out a common approach to student drug use. In section one of the report, this guidance recommends that universities adopt a harm reduction approach to student drug use. An approach that does not involve condoning or seeking to normalise the use of drugs but aims to reduce the potential harms should students take drugs.  

The importance of a consistent sector approach

As a taskforce member for this report, SOS-UK welcomes this change in approach, recognising that it is an important step in giving universities and students’ unions the confidence to adopt a holistic, health-based approach to student drug use. The framework’s publication has many benefits for the higher education sector:  

  • It encourages a whole-sector approach, enabling providers to learn from each other and share good practice.  
  • It encourages providers to place the health, safety and wellbeing of students at the centre of the response.  
  • It sets out five key principles for universities to consider when adopting and implementing the guidance: acting on evidence, co-producing with students, empowering staff, acting in partnership and demonstrating impact.  
  • It encourages further research and the sharing of good practice.  

A report welcomed by parents

Coverage in the Guardian this morning importantly highlights the perspective of bereaved parents:

Sandra Larmour, mother of Jeni Larmour, who tragically died in October 2020 commented, where once she might have backed zero tolerance, she now favours educating and supporting students, though she said universities should never condone drug use. “If you’re doing something in an open and informed manner, that can only help. If you’ve got people there with insight, knowledge and professional experience that can give them guidance on it, and they feel they can come forward, that’s a very positive step”.  

This is echoed by Hilton Mervis who recently set up the SafeCourse charity following the accidental overdose of his son, Daniel Mervis. “Drugs left a hole in my family’s life because Daniel was failed by zero-tolerance policies,” Hilton said, adding that the college now has a “clear harm reduction policy which puts the safety and wellbeing of their students first. Yet many universities continue to declare zero tolerance on drugs. In practice, this means zero action. This puts students at risk. The time has come for universities to adopt active, student-led harm reduction approaches.”

Where next for the sector?

We know there is strong demand from students and staff alike to see institutions adopt a harm reduction approach, as evidenced by the SOS-UK Students, Alcohol and Drugs National Survey 20231 in which 64% of students agree that their university’s stance on drugs should enable students to thrive in education. We hope that in due course, the full results of the survey with just under 4000 students and a summary of the feedback from the student and staff focus groups will be published alongside the report to aid future work.

The report sets out several next steps for institutions, one of which is consideration of the SOS-UK ‘Drug and Alcohol Impact’ accreditation programme. Drug and Alcohol Impact has been running since 2020 and supports institutions in their approach to student drug and alcohol use. Keele University is one such institution, and feature as a case study in the report. To date, thirteen universities have taken part in the Drug and Alcohol Impact programme, and in so doing have adopted a harm reduction approach and operationalised this on campus. These universities have demonstrated increased knowledge of student drug use, improved provision of support for students, increased information and advice available to students, enhanced staff and student training and greater inclusion of support in disciplinary procedures.  

Our conclusion

The report today sets out clear recommendations for a harm reduction approach to student drug use and we look forward to working with UUK and institutions to operationalise these recommendations.  

We know that stigma around drug use prevents students from seeking support as evidenced by UUK’s own research that found of those students who sought help from their education provider, over half (54%) feared experiencing stigma2. The report sets out that universities should tackle stigma for students who seek support. SOS-UK looks forward to supporting institutions on how to implement this recommendation, with our work showing that stigma can be reduced through a concerted and consistent approach to language, practices and education on campuses.

The evidence is clear that harm reduction saves lives and we would like to see universities respond to this guidance from UUK by promptly adopting and operationalising harm reduction policies, strategies and approaches on their campuses.

To support universities and students’ unions to translate these recommendations into practical, actionable steps we will be running a webinar on 24th July at 1pm . To attend the webinar complete your expression of interest.