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Student drug use: reducing harm and tackling supply

9 February 2022

New taskforce to help universities understand and address drug-use

Universities UK (UUK) has announced new work in partnership with Unite Students, GuildHE and Independent HE, to set out a common approach to reduce harms from drug use and better tackle supply.

This comes as institutions are expressing concern about the impact of student drug use with associated risks of learning and mental health problems, of damage to future job prospects, of addiction and avoidable deaths.

The work will:

  • Produce an evidence-led sector guidance – developed with students, staff and wider stakeholders – including recommendations that are firmly based on harm reduction.
  • Better understand supply of demand for and use of drugs in the UK student population.
  • Survey current approaches – and spotlight national & international best practice – to drugs education, support, treatment and recovery.
  • Set out a clear description of the law and current policing for universities across the four nations of the UK.
  • Make student drug use visible as a welfare and health issue with consequences for exploitation, mental health, learning, employability and community.

To direct the work, UUK has established a taskforce, chaired by Professor Nic Beech, Vice Chancellor, Middlesex University London. It will bring together government departments, sector agencies, the NUS, accommodation providers, public health, charities and police, with standalone research and student advisory panels.

Professor Dame Carol Black, who recently lead the government’s independent review of drugs, Dr Ed Day, National Recovery Champion and Professor Owen Bowden-Jones, Chair, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), will act as special advisors.

Later this year, UUK and Unite Students will publish a research report based on an upcoming wide-ranging student survey. Findings from the report will help shape UUK’s guidance, highlighting best practice and outlining a sector-led approach to tackling drug use in universities.

Professor Dame Carol Black said:

‘One of the key findings of my independent review was the rise in recreational drug use and associated harms among young adults. The government’s 10 year drug strategy responded to this finding with a commitment to reducing drug use among young people. I am pleased to support this university sector-led initiative and particularly welcome the emphasis on better understanding student drug use and what works to address it.’

Professor Nic Beech said:

‘I am delighted to lead this important work for UUK and the sector. Drug use is still largely an unspoken issue across UK universities despite the fact that it may impact on learning, on mental health and on students’ future job prospects. The launch of this work signals our firm intention to develop a proactive approach with student safety and health at its heart to help universities understand and address drug use.’

Richard Smith, chief executive of Unite Students, said:

‘As the UK’s leading provider of student accommodation, the welfare and wellbeing of students are priorities, and we are therefore proud to be able to play our part in supporting Universities UK by being involved with this important research for the UK higher education sector. We are keen to better understand the extent to which drug use and supply impacts on students, their mental health and ability to succeed while studying and living at university.’


Unite Students is the UK’s largest owner, manager and developer of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) serving the country’s world-leading higher education sector. We provide homes to 73,000 students across 173 properties in 25 leading university towns and cities. We currently partner with over 60 universities across the UK.

Our people are driven by a common purpose: to provide a ‘Home for Success’ for the students who live with us. Unite Students’ accommodation is safe and secure, high quality, and affordable. Students live predominantly in en-suite study bedrooms with rents covering all bills, insurance, 24-hour security and high-speed Wi-Fi. We also achieved a five-star British Safety Council rating in our last audit in 2020.

We are committed to raising standards in the student accommodation sector for our customers, investors and employees. This is why our new Sustainability Strategy, launched in 2021, includes a commitment to become net zero carbon across our operations and developments by 2030.

Founded in 1991 in Bristol, the Unite Group is an award-winning Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), listed on the London Stock Exchange. For more information, visit Unite Group’s corporate website or the Unite Students’ site


Universities UK is the collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its mission is to create the conditions for UK universities to be the best in the world; maximising their positive impact locally, nationally and globally. Universities UK acts on behalf of universities, represented by their heads of institution.


GuildHE is an officially recognised representative body for UK Higher Education. Our members include universities, university colleges, further education colleges and specialist institutions from both the traditional and private sectors. Member institutions include some major providers in professional subject areas including art, design and media, music and the performing arts; agriculture and food; the built environment; education; health and sports. They have teaching staff that are often industry professionals and are close to the industries they serve.


IHE is a UK membership organisation and formal representative body which exists to support, develop and promote independent providers of higher education, professional training and pathways. IHE’s members include household names such as the Royal Academy and Le Cordon Bleu, long established independent colleges Spurgeon’s College and City & Guilds of London Art School, innovative new providers TEDI-London and the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, industry leading technical institutes Futureworks and Met Film School and global education pathway providers Kaplan and Study Group.


*Drugs – illegal plus harmful use of legal/prescription drugs though not alcohol/tobacco