Tutors have a duty of care to students and must prepare for field trips, whether it's springtime in Paris or trekking up Kilimanjaro, says David Nash.
Most people think that students are capable of looking after themselves, but tutors have a duty of care. If tutors are negligent, they or their institution can be sued.
The days when an overseas field trip or a year's residence abroad meant packing students off on a bus or an aeroplane and leaving them to get on with it are long gone. Everyone is required to take reasonable care to prevent harm befalling a student. No one wants an accusation of negligence to go to court, as it damages institutional reputations and dents legal budgets.
Most cases of negligence are brought by individuals and rely on case law, but there is always the potential for statute law to come into play. It is the law of the land in which the fieldwork takes place or in which the student resides that counts. Different countries have different levels of health and safety regulation.
The best defence against litigation is to be able to demonstrate that the overseas fieldwork or residence abroad was planned and organised safely and responsibly. Organisers should be familiar and comply with their institutional health and safety policy. They should also be able to demonstrate their competence in organising and supervising the activity.
But what is competence? And how can less experienced staff prove it?
One way is to ensure that supervisors or organisers are familiar with the terrain to be visited. Group members also need preparation, but this will differ according to their character and the environment. A year in Paris is not the same as trekking up Kilimanjaro. An organiser needs to be aware of any health issues and special needs of students and staff. I once had a student on a field trip in a remote part of Tunisia who was allergic to horses but didn't declare this until he had had a severe allergic reaction.
Sharing health and safety information among staff might cause problems over data protection, but duty of care to young people can override such concerns.
It also helps to have a clear set of objectives for the study trip and to clarify the safety issues with everyone involved, including parents. I know of a case where staff organising an ecology field trip to Zambia and Botswana faced the dilemma of deciding whether to take guns along since guides were permitted to carry weapons in Zambia but not in Botswana.
From a legal perspective, anyone who goes on a field trip or residence abroad should have adequate clothing and equipment and be aware of safety and cultural issues. Students also need to know that if they misbehave, they not only bring themselves but also fellow students and institutions into disrepute.
Most institutions have a risk assessment procedure. The best risk assessments involve everybody. One example of good practice is to show students photos of the terrain they will encounter and ask them to list potential risks and identify ways to improve their personal safety. This demonstrates that tutors are taking due care.
Tutor organisers must also show they are providing appropriate levels of supervision. This may involve leading groups until they are familiar with an environment or making regular contact with students living or working overseas.
Decisions in the field are often difficult. Lynne Brydon, senior lecturer at Birmingham University's Centre of West African Studies, tells of when she was taking a group of 20 students in an overloaded bus down a winding mountain road in Ghana and the local lottery organiser asked to hitch a lift to get the lotto papers in on time. It would have been rude to say no to the request but there was a risk.
Organisers also need to have contingency plans for a crisis. If an epidemic of, say, severe acute respiratory syndrome strikes in an area where students are on overseas placement, staff need to be in a position to decide whether to bring all the students home and to organise their return.
Students' homecoming is almost as important as the departure, and it is always worth while having feedback and debriefing sessions. Students might not slip back into their studies so easily if they have been overseas for a long period of time. If they have spent a year absorbed in another culture, they may suffer a reverse culture shock.
David Nash is reader in physical geography in the School of Environment at Brighton University, and honorary secretary for expeditions and fieldwork at the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers. For further information contact: www.gees.ac.uk/ and http://www.rgs.org