Foreign visits at risk of legal hangovers

August 9, 2002

Universities need to improve the way they handle study and work placements overseas or risk exposure to costly lawsuits, according to new research.

A survey of 56 institutions found that although the numbers of students doing stints abroad had risen, more than 80 per cent of the respondents were failing to take legal advice about their liabilities for general duty of care towards students on placements. Less than one third took specific advice about their responsibilities for students' health and safety.

Tim Birtwistle, of Leeds Metropolitan University's law department, who carried out the survey, said that giving students the opportunity to travel overseas was an important benefit.

However, he said that although the duty of care was now legally established, too few institutions had the necessary procedures in place, which could have serious consequences if things went wrong.

Universities' legal duty of care covers academic as well as physical and pastoral responsibilities. Like their counterparts in the US, UK students are becoming more litigious in enforcing that duty.

Mr Birtwistle said the judgment in the case of former St Andrews student Erin McLean, who claims she was gang raped during an exchange trip to the Ukraine, is being eagerly awaited.

Ms McLean, an American, is bringing a £100,000 action against St Andrews because she claims it was guilty of a lack of care by allowing a group of students to go to a dangerous area despite previous complaints.

Mr Birtwistle said British universities needed to be aware of differences in host country law as well as discrimination legislation (what if the visited university has no wheelchair access?), health and safety provisions, negligence and contract law.

"Seeking to ensure that students have been briefed, have had the nature of their relationship between the parties explained to them, are aware of their own responsibilities - and have acknowledged them - does seem to be prudent," he said.

"But this is not common practice at the moment, with only 34 per cent of students being required to acknowledge receipt of guidance and about a quarter not being given any written briefing documents."

According to Mr Birtwistle there are simple procedures that can go a long way to minimising risk. "Get the contract right, spell out who is responsible for what and ask plenty of 'what if' questions."

Trip to Japan turned into a nightmare

The university attended by Simone, a 21-year-old language student, is lucky not to have been sued after her visit to Japan. But she prefers to try to put the experience behind her.

During the one-week induction, she said she wanted to be in a city. But after being flown to Tokyo, she was taken to a village two hours by train from the nearest town. Her apartment was empty and filthy.

Instead of teaching in a school, she worked in a small office with no telephone. After two months she had done nothing but photocopying and tea-making. "I felt unsafe and terribly lonely. I complained but they said nothing could be done."

Simone was told she could not leave as she had committed to a one-year stay. "That night I packed my bags, caught a train to the city then a bus to the airport."

She later found she had been the fifth person to leave.

"The scheme had seemed so well managed from this end that I never for a moment expected the experience to be so horrendous," she said.

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