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Scholastic sector's duty of care: Managing the pursuit of education while abroad

By URMIA Staff posted 08-16-2015 10:30 AM


By Lisbeth Claus, Professor of Global Human Resources at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management of Willamette University, and Robert L. Quigley, Regional Medical Director and Senior Vice President of Medical Assistance, Americas Region for International SOS.

Copyright Carissa Rogers Introduction
The scholastic sector (international schools, colleges and universities) operates in a global environment, and its students, faculty, administration and staff travel, live, study and work worldwide in the pursuit of educational activities. Additionally, the students and faculty that educational institutions attract are becoming more geographically diverse. This generates a great deal of international travel, which increases the amount of health, safety and security risks and challenges that universities face in order to protect their constituency.

“Duty of care” in the scholastic sector is the obligation of educational institutions to assume responsibility for protecting their students, faculty and staff from foreseeable risks and threats when studying, working and traveling abroad. As members of the scholastic community continue to cross borders and explore other parts of the world, colleges and universities face a growing number of challenges when it comes to implementing duty of care practices. Let’s take a closer look at the main issues impacting the scholastic sector’s ability to take care of its traveling constituency, as well as its global populations at international branch campuses.

Growing international presence of America’s educational institutions
Similar to businesses and non-profit organizations, educational institutions continue to expand their global footprint by developing exchange agreements with other institutions around the world, setting up satellite campuses abroad, facilitating study abroad opportunities for their students, and supporting sabbaticals for their faculty. This means that American universities are seeing larger amounts of their populations in foreign environments. In emerging countries with less developed healthcare infrastructures, their access to quality medical care can be limited. In both developed and emerging countries, safety can be a concern, which requires additional crime and violence prevention. Finally, there should always be the consideration that their students or faculty might need evacuation due to a medical emergency, natural disaster or political instability.

Prevalence of mental health issues 
A major concern is the rise in mental health issues among college and university students – domestically and internationally – which can be exacerbated when students find themselves in a new and unfamiliar environment when studying abroad. To date, most educational institutions are not equipped or even aware of how to provide mental health services to their students traveling abroad.  Furthermore, the response to the needs of a distressed student while abroad can be complicated by local language barriers and cultural differences. As more and more students enroll in study abroad programs, institutions must educate their faculty, students and partnering institutions on how to recognize and react appropriately to a mental health crisis. Without doing so greatly increases the chance of a failed study abroad experience.

Differentiated scholastic traveler base
Travelers in the scholastic sector consist of students, faculty, administration, staff, and occasionally board of trustee members and alumni. It is interesting to note that students, alumni and board members are not employees but important parts of an educational institution’s constituency. Yet it is undeniable that there is a special relationship between an educational institution and its students that calls for duty of care. Additionally, the faculty often has a different employment status than the administration and staff of an educational facility. For example, tenured and non-tenured faculty are usually considered contract employees while staff are at-will employees. Educational institutions support travel abroad in university-related study or work activities for different reasons. A prudent rule of thumb is to consider all travel that the university requires as a course of study/work, provides funding for, or has any type of supervisory authority over the activity to any one of these constituencies as being subject to duty of care. It is also important to note that even in an instance when the university has no legal duty of care obligations, any activity that has the university’s name associated with it is subject to reputational risk.

Furthermore, the different travelers of the scholastic sector each have specific risk profiles due to their demographics and experience levels. Travel to different countries with varying medical, security and political risk requires customized plans. Because students tend to be younger (and are often impulsive and inexperienced), they are at greater risk and need more preparation and restrictive behavior policies. This complicates the risk assessment, planning and implementation of duty of care activities for the scholastic sector.

High reputational risk
From a public relations standpoint, incidents associated with international travel pose new challenges for educational institutions. The importance of international travel of faculty and students and the quality of the experience can greatly affect the reputation of an educational institution. International emergencies and missteps in communications can result in long-term or even permanent damage to the institution’s reputation or brand.1 

Institutional barriers
Although all organizations must deal with a lack of duty of care awareness among stakeholders, educational institutions in particular have difficulty mobilizing and coordinating the different stakeholders involved in duty of care implementation and face issues of cost and control. The scholastic sector deals with additional duty of care challenges due to certain institutional barriers.2

  • First, while educational facilities increasingly focus on student risk (on campus and for student trips), they tend to overlook the risk associated with international travel of their employees—travel that they for the most part endorse through funding (i.e., conference attendance and sabbaticals).
  • Second, university administrators rely heavily on insurance for all types of risks that students and faculty may encounter. Even though insurance is absolutely prudent and necessary, it is not sufficient in assuming one’s duty of care obligations. Furthermore, many plans do not cover medical expenses (inclusive of medical evacuation) relating to mental illness.
  • Third, educational institutions are often structured with a dual line of authority, making changes in policies and procedures much more difficult.
  • Finally, educational institutions must deal with a highly governance-driven and independent faculty, who often decide to play by their own rules and prefer to make independent decisions.

Poor duty of care performance
The results from the scholastic sector in a 2011 Global Benchmarking Study3 reveal that educational institutions have extremely poor duty of care performance. Key findings indicate that educational institutions and their decision makers (human resources, travel, operations, university presidents) ranked worst among all industries and sectors in all aspects of duty of care management, including lower risk perceptions, awareness of duty of care, ratings on all duty of care practices and the lowest duty of care overall baseline (see figure 1). These issues have shed light on the need for strategic and tactical intervention from the leaders in the scholastic sector to protect the health, safety and security of their communities when they cross borders.

Recommendations for university administrators

In the past, we have recommended four specific actions for university administrators to implement regarding duty of care management. They included:

  1. Get the internal university stakeholders together.
  2. Set up a university-wide duty of care task force.
  3. Manage your reputational risk.
  4. Develop, implement and evaluate your strategy.4

In light of the benchmarking findings spotlighting the poor performance of the scholastic sector, we recommend to educational institutions that are new to duty of care to focus on five additional best practices that offer the greatest impact for baseline operations and continuous improvement:

1. Increase awareness and know-how of duty of care at the administration level
It’s critical for the scholastic sector to increase internal awareness of duty of care, starting with decision makers at the administration level. Compared to industry employers, educational institutions seem unaware of the legal and fiduciary scope of their duty of care obligations. Getting the attention of university presidents and developing the “know-how” is a first step. Next, universities need to get the internal stakeholders together and discuss their specific duty of care risks and mitigation tactics. This includes public relations, human resources, campus safety and security, international programs, campus travel, the deans of the various schools, program directors and risk managers. Duty of care is everyone’s responsibility. Also, an essential part of duty of care is taking care of an organization’s community within– the employees, families and partners who make up the core of the institution. Deans and department and program heads must be aware of the duty of care obligations and be incentivized to implement the appropriate programs and processes that the university has designed to protect traveling students and university employees. Otherwise, they will not effectively mitigate risk and achieve the desired outcomes.

2. Establish and ensure compliance with duty of care policies and procedures
Educational institutions must have a robust set of duty of care policies and procedures regarding:

  •  Individual and group student travel
  •  Faculty, staff and administration travel
  •  Travel reimbursement
  •  Prohibited risky behaviors on and off campus for university-related study or work
  •  Travel authorizations and restrictions
  •  Accommodations
  •  Transportation
  •  Rest breaks
  •  Notifications

Compliance must be measured and rewarded, and non-compliance should be enforced with serious consequences for those violating the established policies and procedures put in place to protect them while traveling. The specific rewards and consequences should be determined by your institution but could include withholding travel reimbursements for faculty and withholding course credits for students.

3. Assess foreseeable risk prior to any planned trip on behalf of the university
An essential duty of care obligation is to mitigate “foreseeable” risk. The primary mitigation component is to assess the risk prior to departure of any trip related to university study or work. This is best done by using reliable sources of health and security risk information. Once the risk is assessed, medical and security alerts should be put in place to determine whether that travel has the university’s approval. An interesting situation for universities unfolded during the 2014 Ebola crisis where university employees (researchers, medical and other personnel) volunteered their services to help with the crisis when other employers had already recalled their workers. While American universities where clearly aware of the risks involved and their duty of care obligations, they had a wide spectrum of responses balancing their do-good mission with their duty of care strategies.5

Due to the potentially risky nature of certain travel locations, educational institutions should take special travel precautions as standard operating procedures:

  • Adopt a flexible travel management system
  • Audit the duty of care capabilities of their educational exchange partners
  • Require approval for all student and faculty travel
  • Require booking through an approved travel provider
  • Have travel approval procedures that include risk assessment
  • Assess current medical and security risk of the route
  • Brief student and faculty travelers on travel risk, institute check-in and check-out protocols
  • Educate and train student and faculty travelers on risk mitigation behaviors
  • Provide appropriate hand-off to transportation and accommodation vendors
  • Know where they are going and what provisions they need and check that they have them
  • Provide a road map of expected behaviors and then implement it
  • Link travel reimbursement to compliance with travel policies and procedures
  • Implement an “I’m Okay” policy for people to indicate they’re okay after an incident occurs

4. Track traveling students, faculty, staff and administrative employees at all times
Travel tracking is a basic requirement in order to be able to properly advise and assist the travelers once they have departed. Tracking traveling students, faculty and staff must go beyond knowing where they are at all times and include informing them of changing risk while traveling. Being able to locate students and faculty while abroad and have reliable pre-approved means of communication with them in case of an incident or emergency is vital in advising them of the appropriate course of action.

5. Implement an emergency response notification system for faculty, staff and students
Although campus lockdown procedures are much more common, few educational institutions have a notification policy in place in case of emergency when traveling abroad. With the medical, safety and security risks associated in high-risk locations, employers of educational institutions should be able to immediately assess whether their students, faculty and staff are okay or need special assistance and evacuation. Educational institutions have many tech-savvy students and faculty who are usually good at frequent and diverse means of communication (especially social media). This lends itself well to implementing and testing such a notification system using multiple communication platforms.

The scholastic sector faces extraordinary challenges compared to other industries as a result of the diverse customer and employee base and the institutional culture. The failure to understand and assume its duty of care obligations can have dramatic consequences in terms of legal liability, reputational risk and even educational program continuity. Duty of care—and for that matter duty of loyalty (meaning that university students and employees who travel abroad have to engage in the policies and procedures that their employer has put in place to protect them)—has not yet become a central feature of responsibility of educational institutions. Sustainable management of these programs requires more than just attracting the right student and faculty talent. It also encompasses “doing the right thing” to protect their health, safety, security and well-being, especially when they are traveling on behalf of the university. By protecting its people first and foremost, the scholastic sector will realize that it is less costly to prevent and manage risk than having to take care of incidents that tarnish its reputation and sustainability goals. Additionally, meeting these new challenges with appropriate measures will only make international programs more appealing to students, their parents, third party payers of education, faculty and staff.

About the Authors
Lisbeth Claus, PhD, SPHR, GPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a professor of global human resources at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Claus has been published widely in academic and professional journals on subject matters related to global human resources, performance management of multinational companies and global workforce employer duty of care issues. She was the co-author of a leading textbook, International Human Resource Management (3rd edition), by Briscoe, Schuler, and Claus and is the editor-in-chief of the Global HR Practitioner Handbook (Global Immersion press, volumes 1 and 2).

Robert L. Quigley, MD, D.Phil., Professor of Surgery, is the regional medical director and senior vice president of Medical Assistance, Americas Region for International SOS. He is responsible for leading the delivery of high quality medical assistance, healthcare management and medical transportation services for International SOS. International SOS operates in more than 850 locations in 92 countries and serves 61 percent of the Fortune 500 and 83 percent of the Fortune 100 companies.

1  Quigley, R., Claus, L. and Nixon, A. "Behavioral Health Morbidity for those Studying or Working Internationally: An Exploratory Duty of Care Study." Journal of Global Mobility (forthcoming 2015).

2  Claus, L. and Yost, R. “A Global View of the University’s Duty of Care Obligations.” URMIA Journal (2010):29-36.

3  Claus, L. "Duty of Care Scholastic Sector: Special Report." International SOS (2014).

4  Claus, L. "Duty of Care and Travel Risk Management Global Benchmarking Study." International SOS (2011).

5  Claus and Yost, p.34.

6  Pérez-Peña, R. "Ebola Prompts Universities to Tighten Travel Rules." New York Times (October 21, 2014).

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