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Asbestos puts students at risk on campus - building material found in 74% of English university buildings

Global asbestos awareness week 1-7 April 2017

As the new academic year gets underway, students and staff are facing an asbestos risk at a high number of top-ranking English universities, as national law firm reveals almost two-thirds have asbestos in campus buildings.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Stephensons Solicitors LLP sent to 106 universities in England has revealed 74% are understood to have the potentially harmful building material present in the fabric of their buildings, a total of 78 higher education establishments.

A staggering 86% of universities who responded to the FOI request contain asbestos on their estates, according to the official figures. In total, 91 English universities responded to the request for information.

Uni’s reporting asbestos include Russell Group universities, such as University of Cambridge and University of Oxford, and all of the six red brick universities – University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Leeds, University of Liverpool, University of Manchester and University of Sheffield.

With freshers week in full swing, Stephensons’ personal injury team is calling on all universities to do more to provide students and staff with information on the deadly material if there is asbestos on campus or in student accommodation.

Kate Sweeney, a Partner in the personal injury team at Stephensons, said: “It’s not surprising due to the age of many of the country’s university buildings that an incredibly high number of universities have reported that they have asbestos present in the buildings on their estates.

“As thousands of new students start uni and undergraduates return to their studies, we are calling on universities to better inform students and staff if there is asbestos present on campus and the measures being taken to manage it. A consistent and clear message needs to be added to websites, student newspapers and department notice boards.”

The findings follow an exposé by Stephensons in July which revealed 5,196 maintained primary schools are understood to have the potentially deadly material in its buildings.

The law firm is campaigning for more information to be disclosed about the presence of asbestos in buildings used for education.

Asbestos was banned in 1999 but had been routinely used during construction in decades gone by. The material was commonly installed in schools, colleges, universities and other public buildings during the 1940s-1970s and is now often in a deteriorating state.

Asbestos fibres only become a risk to human health when they are released into the air and breathed in.

Problem buildings with damaged roofs, rotten windows and broken ceiling tiles can result in asbestos fibres being released into the air. If inhaled, the fibres can cause a range of life-threatening illnesses including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Liz Darlison, Head of Services at Mesothelioma UK, the national charity for the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, added: “The prevalence of mesothelioma in the UK does not appear to be slowing down and concern about the effect of low levels of exposure to asbestos is increasing.

“As new academic years start for all students the presence of asbestos in educational buildings - from schools, colleges to universities - is an issue we need to address as a national priority. Mesothelioma UK applaud Stephensons Solicitors for raising awareness of asbestos and the effects of exposure in universities.” 

Kate added: “Asbestos is still very much a problem in the education sector from primary schools through to universities and unfortunately the number of cases of asbestos related diseases in people who have worked in the sector is increasing.

“The potentially deadly material has been used in all types of buildings and is still present in many primary schools and universities due to aging educational buildings. Parents, students, academics, teachers and support staff have a right to know if asbestos is present and what measures are being taken to manage exposure.”


Mesothelioma is caused by airborne asbestos fibres being inhaled and getting into a person’s lungs. The fibres can lodge into the pleura (lining of the lungs) which causes inflammation and scarring. Over time, the damage affects the DNA of cells and can cause mesothelioma cancer. Often it is not diagnosed until many years later.

Warning signs of pleural mesothelioma1:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Sweating and high temperatures
  • A persistent cough
  • Losing weight when not dieting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A hoarse or husky voice
  • Changes in the shape of fingers and nails

When to see your doctor

You should see your doctor if you have the above symptoms. Particularly if you know you have been exposed to asbestos in the past.

Your symptoms are unlikely to be cancer but it's important to get them checked by a doctor. The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful.

1Cancer Research UK

English universities who responded to the Freedom of Information Request submitted by Stephensons and have asbestos present in the fabric of their buildings:

  1. Aston University
  2. York St John University
  3. Warwick University
  4. London Metropolitan University
  5. SOAS University of London
  6. University of Hertfordshire
  7. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  8. Reading University
  9. Royal College of Art
  10. Cranfield University
  11. Keele University
  12. Leeds Beckett University
  13. Plymouth University
  14. Portsmouth University
  15. Royal Academy of Music
  16. University of Bedfordshire
  17. University of Cambridge
  18. Sheffield University
  19. University of London
  20. City University of London
  21. Solent University *
  22. Salford University
  23. University of Cumbria
  24. Imperial College London
  25. Nottingham University
  26. University of the Arts London
  27. University of Exeter
  28. Bournemouth University
  29. Royal Veterinary College
  30. London South Bank University
  31. University of Birmingham
  32. University of Bradford
  33. Nottingham Trent University
  34. Durham University
  35. Manchester Metropolitan University
  36. University of Derby
  37. Birbeck University of London
  38. Canterbury Christchurch University
  39. University of Liverpool
  40. University College London
  41. University of York
  42. Liverpool John Moores University
  43. Birmingham City University
  44. Sunderland University
  45. Leeds University
  46. University of Sussex
  47. Huddersfield University
  48. Oxford University
  49. St George’s, University of London
  50. UWE Bristol
  51. Kent University
  52. Brunel University London
  53. Harper Adams University
  54. Kings College London
  55. Queen Mary University London
  56. University of Hull
  57. University of Leicester
  58. University of Worcester
  59. University of Greenwich
  60. University of Roehampton
  61. University of Surrey
  62. University of Lincoln
  63. University of Westminster
  64. University of Northampton
  65. Northumbria University
  66. Loughborough University
  67. Arts University Bournemouth
  68. London School of Economics
  69. Anglia Ruskin University
  70. Sheffield Hallam University
  71. Brighton University
  72. Manchester University
  73. The Open University
  74. De Montfort University
  75. University of Bristol
  76. Bolton University
  77. Gloucestershire University
  78. Goldsmiths University of London

*Solent University could not confirm they did not have asbestos in its buildings as it has no requirement to report it.