How can universities protect their academic travellers?

“Many institutions may be leaving themselves exposed unnecessarily – particularly in a fast-changing and dynamic global environment with new risks and threats”

Randall Gordon-Duff, head of product, corporate travel for Collinson Group, which specialises in global travel assistance, shares some tips on what higher education institutions that send students and academic staff abroad should be looking at when reviewing their duty of care strategies.

The world is seemingly becoming a more dangerous place for many of us. As I write this piece, I recall a BBC article from earlier this year titled: Apocalypse is 30 Seconds Closer, say Doomsday Clock Scientists. The report states that this is the closest the clock has come to midnight since 1953, following hydrogen bomb tests by the US and Russia.

Most of us will have a natural sense that the world has become a more volatile and unstable place over the past few years, due to international terrorist activities, rising levels of crime and high profile social unrest. It’s not all doom-and-gloom, but with political landscapes shifting in the US, Europe and the Middle East, the wider ‘risk narrative’ has certainly become more acute.

Like business travellers, mobile academic staff and international students from universities and higher education entities are confronted by heightened travel risks; indeed, many are more exposed to them than other organisations and businesses since establishing a general travel policy that covers all elements of risk exposure and mitigation is made even more challenging in the higher education sector with multiple traveller types such as PhD students, undergraduates or academics.

“As little as a third of academic travellersknow of an established procedure to receive guidance on what to do in emergency situations”

Research undertaken by Key Travel among 1,000 academic travellers showed that a third of them feel a heightened sense of security when travelling. However, as little as a third know of an established procedure to receive news and guidance on what to do in emergency situations and only around 60% had an agreed way of communicating with when things go wrong.

The challenge for higher education establishments is to better manage this heightened focus on duty of care, particularly as more and more staff and students are travelling around the world. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a total of 18,770 UK students studied abroad in the 2014/2015 academic year – a rise of 11% on 2013/2014 and up 88% from 9,895 ten years earlier.

Practical steps

There are a number of ways that universities and higher education establishments can improve their duty of care. ‘Best practice’ is difficult to define but the following are some of the key considerations:

  • The establishment of a centralised booking system can help identify traveller risk exposure before and during a trip, making it easier to ensure appropriate guidance and support as well as outreach and response while overseas. If this is not feasible, a central register for those travelling abroad would also be a valuable help.
  • Universities may wish to explore practical solutions with regards to emergency funds, especially for vulnerable students in a foreign country. They (or alternatively a corporate travel risk provider) can issue pre-paid cards that can be uploaded remotely to provide emergency funds to faculty members or students if required.
  • Universities need to separate their lower risk programmes from their higher risk exposures, adopting a ‘light touch’ approach to the former (communications programmes, pre-travel training and emergency contact support); and a more interactive qualitative approach to those they send to the higher risk locations (potential for on the ground security support, pre-travel risk assessment and training on kidnap risk and lower incidence risks but which carry higher threat levels).
  • Reviewing a duty of care framework will often involve understanding what is covered and provided by insurance and assistance and ‘filling out’ with other consultancy services to cover training, information, tracking and other needs that may not exist within the insurance package alone.
  • Duty of Care extends beyond just physical risks, it also covers psychological support. Universities may wish to consider facilitating access to mental health hotlines or counselling, especially for those set to be abroad for prolonged periods.

It is important to stress that most higher education establishments are already fully aware of these challenges – in particular, the logistical and administrative difficulties of managing a variety of different scenarios. For instance, an MA student travelling to Florence to study Art History represents a different problem from a Duty of Care perspective than a senior member of the Archaeology faculty travelling to Afghanistan. However, the question remains, can more be done?

There is a worry that many institutions may be leaving themselves exposed unnecessarily – particularly in a fast-changing and dynamic global environment with new risks and threats. With the growth in outward mobility in the higher education sector, there is an urgent need for institutions to review their risk mitigation strategies and processes along with the support of travel risk partners to ensure they meet their legal and moral obligations.