Quit asking 'what if...'

September 24, 2004

Risk assessment has instilled irrational fear in academics. Just calm down, pleads Dennis Hayes

A university administrator recently told me she was worried about security.

At her university, there were no passes or identity cards and people could come and go as they pleased. She thought that this made staff and students anxious and insecure. When I commented that this situation was in fact a very happy one and that the university authorities probably, and rightly, thought such things unnecessary as there was no crime, harassment or even vandalism of any significance, she replied: "But there could be."

At a conference at Exeter University, I overheard a conversation between two visiting academics. They were looking, I thought with some pleasure, at the beautiful gardens on the campus. "How very 1960s," one of them said.

Her colleague commented: "Yes. They never gave any thought to safety then."

The conclusion was inevitable: "Down with the trees."

Take any student union annual report and it will no longer be a catalogue of meetings organised to overthrow capitalism but a litany of student fears. Policing excessive drinking, checking gas fires and smoke alarms, and working with the police and the community to reduce noise and other unacceptable behaviour such as littering, all in the interests of everyone's safety and peace of mind.

Worse than this is the incalculable damage done to the university sector by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's "risk management" initiative, issued four years ago. This exercise requires every member of every university from governors to gardeners to list any risks they can think up.

It is unusual to find such a clear example of a systematic attempt by any official body to raise the level of risk consciousness or, more accurately, the fearfulness of any institution. Instead of encouraging an entrepreneurial, innovative and exciting sector, they have created an atmosphere of caution and insecurity. The real evidence for the damage done will, of course, be forever unquantifiable. It will reside in that groundbreaking research that was not undertaken, that unique course that was not proposed, that new post that was not advertised, and so on.

There is no doubt, however, that the exercise has contributed to the obsession with safety and "risk" that now pervades the university and that has altered people's subjective approach to issues. The first thing managers think about now is risk, but higher education is a risky business, the most risky of all because people in universities are engaged in the pursuit of new and often challenging knowledge that threatens the status quo. This risk-taking is under threat through the managerial promotion of people's fears.

People argue that universities should be "risk conscious but not risk averse", but this is a false opposition. In the present social and political climate of insecurity and fear there is no meaningful difference between being "risk conscious" and "risk averse". It amounts to saying: "I'm fearful, but not in an extreme way."

I suspect that British universities are among some of the safest places on the planet. But life at university is now seen as a very risky business in a sociological rather than an epistemological sense.

The University of Wales at Aberystwyth even advertises itself as being in one of the safest, lowest crime areas in Britain. If you are a very timid and fearful academic or student, Aberystwyth is clearly the place for you.

The response to such fearfulness is simply to forget about it. Make sure you don't worry about possible and non-existent risks, don't cut down the trees, don't encourage students' childish worries and, if you are forced to undertake risk assessments, don't let them occupy more mind space than the paperwork demands.

Although the fearful will see this suggestion as irresponsible and insensitive, we should all adopt a grown-up attitude. It is possible. A friend told me that when she was leaving her office on her campus one night the porter offered to walk her to her car. It was much safer to have someone with you, he said. But, she replied: "Who's going to walk you back?"

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Studies in Education and Work, Canterbury Christ Church University College. He is editor of The RoutledgeFalmer Guide to Key Debates in Education , £18.99.

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