PhD students overseas: where does duty of care lie?

Giulio Regenis murder poses difficult questions for the sector on what doctoral students research should entail

May 5, 2016
Caution hazard road signs
Source: Getty
Proceed with caution: for students ‘thinking of going to a war zone or digging up volcanoes’, decisions about risk should be made at the research design stage, it was suggested

Besides the natural reactions of horror and sadness that followed the murder in Egypt of Italian University of Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni, scholars around the world called the case an “attack on academic freedom”.

But while there has been a staunch defence of the continued right of doctoral students to travel to unstable parts of the world for their research, his death is raising some difficult questions for higher education surrounding the best ways to ensure their safety.

According to a spokesman from Research Councils UK (RCUK), whose member organisations provide much of the funding for PhD students, “responsibility for ensuring students are in a safe working environment rests with the research organisations”, in other words, universities.

However, “general guidance is given to universities on expectations for postgraduate training including expectations that a safe working environment is provided".

Under the health and safety section in RCUK’s Conditions of Research Training Grants, it says that organisations are “responsible for ensuring that a safe working environment is provided for all individuals associated with a student’s research project”.

“Appropriate care must be taken where researchers are working off-site,” it continues. “The Research Councils reserve the right to require the Research Organisation to undertake a safety risk assessment in individual cases where health and safety is an issue, and to monitor and audit the actual arrangements made.” 

Rosemary Deem, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said that it was important that decisions about risk should be addressed even before a PhD student has been submitted to a department.

“It starts before the student even gets recruited,” she said. “At the research design stage…that’s very important. I think it’s the supervisor’s responsibility to make sure the student goes through all the kinds of internal checks they need to, so if they are thinking of going to a war zone, or they are going to go and dig up volcanoes…if people really do think this is problematic, they need to say so then.”

Professor Deem noted that when you get past that stage it depends on the institution as to what students are allowed to do.

Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in the department of politics and international studies (POLIS) at the University of Cambridge, in which Mr Regeni was a student, told Times Higher Education that the process of arranging his fieldwork, which involved carrying out research on the changing labour sector in Egypt, was no different from that for any other doctoral student.

“Students always have to conduct a risk assessment of their work whenever they’re going anywhere outside Cambridge,” he said.

“[If] they’re going off to interview somebody at Westminster, there’s no risk really,” he said. “But when it comes to working in countries in which there is some degree of political uncertainty, that becomes especially important and is taken very seriously from the department’s and the university’s perspective.

“They have to take on board information such as Foreign [and Commonwealth] Office travel advice, they have to take on board information that they’ve been given by other experts in the region."

In the case of students going to volatile regions, they will also have “serious conversations with their supervisor about research strategy”, he added.

“Before they get permission to go for fieldwork, they have to write it up as their own guidelines for their own research,” he continued. “It’s then reviewed by the department, there’s a committee that reviews these for approval or suggests revision. In Giulio’s case, it was approved.

“It was a very thorough, competent account of what he was going to be doing, which acknowledged the dangers, but also had good strategies for preventing those dangers from becoming pressing.”

The academic freedom argument

Such a system is certainly not exclusive to POLIS.

Trevor Batten, director of research at Leeds Trinity University, said that students there are “encouraged to discuss any hazards and safety measures around political unrest…and personal safety, with their supervisor.

“We take our duty of care extremely seriously and it is the responsibility of our PhD supervisors to ensure students are competent, authorised and qualified to undertake the work, and have the necessary skills and knowledge to do so safely.

"Overseas travel is not authorised if the risk assessment has not been completed and signed by the PhD supervisor and head of department.” 

For Derek Woollins, vice-principal (research) and provost at the University of St Andrews, the primary concern is always safety, but at the same time there is an acceptance that PhD students must have the academic freedom to make the choices that are right for their research.

“What you really want to be sure of is that people have analysed things thoroughly, minimised the risk as far as they can, and they understand where they’re going with this and what the outcome might be. If someone’s really understood it, I think it’s quite hard to tell them not to do it. You are kind of deciding what their research is about. I feel uncomfortable about that.”

Professor Woollins noted that some disciplines, such as international relations and politics, concern him a little more, and if he felt strongly he would continue to dissuade a student from going. The one case where he felt he would be able to override the academic freedom argument would be if the university’s insurers said that they wouldn’t insure someone.

“The insurer covers every member of the university. A PhD student is a member of the university,” he said.

While the Regeni murder is the extreme scenario, Professor Woollins said that the tragedy would have made universities pause for thought about their risk assessment processes.

“It’s a reminder to go back and look at your systems, refresh them,” he said. “Are they fit for purpose, have things changed since these systems were put into place?

Dr Batten said that as a result of the case, he was looking at “providing further one-to-one support and training for staff and students who might be travelling to high-risk areas".

But is there a limit to what can be done from the UK when many situations in a foreign country will be beyond the control of those working there?

What are the things you would expect us to do? Restricting students’ access to certain countries? My instincts are restricting things doesn’t often work, Professor Woollins said.

“In the end, we’re looking for human rights and behaviours in countries to be improved. There’s an old cliché that education reflects society and I think it applies here. If you want to improve these things it’s about general societal improvement as much as universities trying to fix things for their constituent members,” he added.

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