THE new rector of Edinburgh University, Green MSP Robin Harper, announced at his installation yesterday that one of his prime concerns will be to help formulate new strategies to cut the number of suicides among students.

Mr Harper, who takes over the post from former Hearts star John Colquhoun, gave the assurance following the sudden deaths of four Edinburgh University students in the last six months, three of which were apparent suicides.

Taking the reigns of the rectorship for the next three years, Mr Harper has already entered discussions with university staff as they consider ways of making their welfare network more accessible.

He also said he had called for a link with the Scottish Society for Mental Health (SAMH) and MSPs to investigate ways of cutting the number of suicides in Scotland as a whole and among students in particular.

He said: ''Every time a student walks out of life it is a tragedy for their family, their loved ones and their friends. In so many cases they leave behind a welter of unanswered questions.

''Universities throughout Scotland have devoted thought and effort to provide adequate counselling and support services.

''Edinburgh has 12 trained counsellors, a wide-ranging student welfare service, its own health centre, a 24-hour helpline, wardens charged with welfare responsibilities in every residence and other senior staff with further welfare responsibilities.''

Mr Harper said it was imperative the culture among those suffering from illnesses like depression relating to keeping problems bottled up had to be changed if the issue was to be broached effectively.

He said: ''The counselling services here are looking at best practices across the world and they will be looking at seeing if there are any strategies that have worked.

''The US Air Force strategy, for example, among pilots was dramatically effective - it cut them by 50%.''

''The problem in Scotland is encouraging a culture of self-referral for all young people when they feel depressed. Mental health is the last taboo, more difficult to discuss than cancer.

''We need to appreciate that one in four people will suffer from mild to severe depression or other mental illness in their lifetime.

''Over the years to come I hope we can make it as easy to discuss anxiety and depression and enlist the help of counselling as it is to visit a doctor about an attack of shingles.''

A spokesman for the university confirmed Mr Harper's involvement, adding: ''One scheme which we have been looking at is the scheme in operation in the US Air Force and we are seeing how well this may or may not adapt to circumstances here. It is something we are simply informing ourselves about at this stage.

''Robin has already been having discussions with people in the university, he is informing himself about what is happening himself and it is an area in which he has already said he has a particularly keen interest.

''Students should always remember that it doesn't matter how big a problem it is, the welfare services will be only too happy to help.''

Former teacher Mr Harper is the 46th person to hold the post of rector, which, at the four ancient Scottish universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Glasgow, entails chairing meetings of the court, the governing body of the university as well as taking an active part in many aspects of student life.

Other previous rectors at Edinburgh have included Muriel Gray, Archie McPherson and Lord Steel of Aikwood.

Tragic toll at university

FIVE Edinburgh University students have died suddenly in the last 18 months.

In November 1998, Ms Stephanie Bramsen, 23, fell to her death from the seventh floor of the university's Appleton Tower soon after breaking up with her partner.

Late last year, first-year medical student Kate Hodgson died after falling from Salisbury Crags. She was reported to have been suffering from stress, but a coroner in her home town of Darlington recorded an open verdict.

PhD student Dinesh Jagadish, 22, a student at the affiliated Moredun Institute, hanged himself in January. In February, Emma Harron, 19, fell to her death from a flat in Marchmont.

Just weeks ago, Catriona McAuley, 18, hanged herself in the run up to her first-year exams. Her boyfriend, 23-year-old chef Neil Buchanan, later hanged himself in woods.