Going global means universities have an increased duty of care

The world is a complex place and universities must ensure they carry out rigorous travel risk assessments for students and staff, writes Paul Cusition 

December 15, 2019
International travel

Internationalism is deep in the DNA of universities. Learning and research are enriched enormously by input from other countries and travel to them, for students and academics alike. An estimated 700,000 UK students spend time studying abroad, while their teachers likely have travelled for conferences, research or originate from overseas themselves.

It is fair to say that the world has become a more dangerous and unpredictable place. Right now political unrest means that Chile and Hong Kong, for example, are riskier than this time last year. Disease outbreaks and natural disasters often occur with little or no warning. Who knows where might be unsafe in 2020?

Duty of care expectations on universities and colleges are also increasing, and universities will want to apply best practice in keeping their students and staff safe. Partnerships with host in-country HE institutions or companies do not absolve institutions of their responsibilities to their employees and students. 

These pressures have raised the bar for universities and service providers; many now have formal risk assessment processes for those needing to go overseas, and some have sophisticated travel management operations and processes.

At Umal – a member-owned insurance mutual –  we cover risks across the board. Since 2012 our travel team has seen annual travel claims double, as has the average value of each claim. While the vast majority are for small sums, others are certainly not. 

Fortunately, serious incidents such as imprisonment, terrorism, serious injury, kidnap or accidental death are very rare, but institutions do need to be ready to cope with them. They can place a heavy burden on staff, distracting them from their regular work which may in turn need to be covered by others. 

The victim of a serious incident is likely to need medical and/or psychiatric care, as well as rest and rehabilitation. Close family may require care and transportation. 

Medical costs represent two out of every five travel claims that we handle, and are rising by around 10 per cent per year. These may be from accidents or infections, or pre-existing conditions such as allergies or diabetes which are becoming more prevalent. As well as covering the costs of medical treatment and medicines, there is also the possibility that someone will need to be repatriated.  

For example, an academic from one of our member institutions suffered an incident in South America. He was seen by one of the best surgeons in the country, but to get him home he had to be flown at a lower altitude than those used by commercial jets. Hiring an executive jet cost a six-figure amount.

The mental health of university faculty and staff is another growing concern. Being away from home can generate feelings of isolation, which are Inevitably intensified in a foreign country. Travel brings its own stresses with unfamiliar environments, languages, cultures and anxieties over safety and security.

While theft is as old as humanity, cyber security on the road is a new threat, as one academic learned when her email account was hacked. The criminal messaged her family stating that she had been kidnapped and demanding a ransom. She was blissfully unaware.

The rate at which university students and employees travel overseas isn’t going to slow down so institutions need to ask themselves a number of questions: how thorough are our pre-travel assessments, briefings and training? How easy is it for staff or students to find up-to-date information on the medical, safety and security issues where they are going? Are there joined-up processes and responsibilities that run across travel management, HR, legal and academic departments?  

Are there clear, available and empowered welfare contacts both in country and at home? Conversely, how easy is it for those travelling to innocently make their own arrangements, and leave the institution in the dark? Is there a feedback loop for negative travel experiences and incidents?

The duty of care that every university and college owes to its students and staff is under the spotlight when it comes to foreign travel. If things go wrong, media coverage and court judgements can damage an institution’s reputation, hitting student recruitment and possibly funding.

Travel cover is of course only part of the solution. However, all policies expect those who are insured to take reasonable care and mitigate risks. While we always go out of our way to settle claims quickly and efficiently, money alone cannot always compensate for physical injury or mental trauma.

Paul Cusition is chief executive of UMAL

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