When the going gets tough: duty of care and its importance by Siena Uiterwijk Winkel

Safety and security for students and staff traveling in complex, remote and hazardous areas is important but often taken for granted at universities. In order to create an embedded, inclusive and efficient policy, it is key to have more exchange of good practice examples among universities and to talk about what is needed in this respect. This article argues these points through discussions that happened in a seminar organised by the ISS on ‘Safety and Security Abroad for Universities’ in cooperation with the Centre for Safety and Development (CSD).


The death of Giulio Regeni, a PhD student at Girton College, Cambridge, in 2016 had a major effect on safety and security policies at the universities in the UK and beyond. Giulio was murdered whilst conducting research in Egypt. There is a growing awareness that universities not only have a legal duty of care towards their students and staff but also a moral obligation as an employer and an educator to provide appropriate support, assistance, training, and to create safe working conditions. Calamities that befall staff and students, such as traffic accidents, muggings, hotel fires, kidnappings, terrorism and natural disasters, not only affect the individuals concerned but they can have an impact on the entire institution. Whether it is academic staff doing research in complex regions or going on visits to partner institutions, students writing their research papers in remote areas or support staff visiting projects in hazardous places, an inclusive safety and security policy should assist staff and students by guiding them to keep risks at minimum.

The ISS organized a seminar on ‘Safety and Security Abroad for Universities’ in cooperation with the CSD. During this seminar, the University of Amsterdam, the University of Copenhagen and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) shared their experiences and ongoing work to create safer working conditions for researchers in the field. During the discussions, we wrestled with the question of how can we limit risks and provide appropriate support to our researchers without interfering with academic freedom.

Marlies Glasius, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, responded to the lack of existing literature on working safely in countries with authoritarian regimes by collaborating with others to put together a much-needed, co-authored and freely downloadable volume on the topic. The book deals with the importance of good preparation, risk assessment and clear instructions for field work. It also touches on the possible mental impact of working in complex and potentially hazardous research arena.

Daniel Thomas Mosbæk Jensen of the University of Copenhagen works as a mobility officer and focuses on the road towards creating an inclusive safety and security policy. He shared that in order to create support for such a policy in the organization, one should involve different internal and external partners. Clear agreements about each department’s responsibilities concerning risk assessment and insurance should be discussed and formulated in order to make the policy effective.

From IDS, having worked on this topic for many years, important issues were discussed by Tim Catherall and Mustafa Roberts. One key point was that in the UK, universities have a legal duty of care. It is illegal not to abide by the duty of care as an employer. This is also applicable in The Netherlands, although there is less awareness about the implications of such a duty than seems to be the case in the UK. IDS have a university safety and security strategy that is embedded in the organization. The various departments such as the project support teams, risk management sub-committee, the executive board and external travel booking partners have their own set responsibilities.

These range from being responsible for risk assessments and filling in travel notification forms to providing security reports and real-time alerts about safety and security. As every department within the organization has its own responsibilities, it is relatively easy to outline expectations to traveling staff. IDS’s safety and security strategy is based on corporate risk management policy and on a risk register. This risk register involves risk assessment as part of the proposal-writing phase of any project. All the steps within a project that involves travel are based on the outcome of the risk register. This means that if a high-risk level is identified, additional training is provided, previous academic experience in hazardous areas is considered and the necessity for the travel is carefully scrutinised. The policy includes a travel notification procedure that results in a clear overview of who is where and when. So in situation of crisis, the university can find out fast and easily who is in the specific area and who might be in danger.

During the presentations and discussions at the end of the seminar, several key questions came to mind. Whose duty of care is it? What could be the role of donors in enhancing risk awareness? Where does the duty of care stop? What is the right balance between limiting risks and providing appropriate support without interfering with academic freedom?

In the end, we need to be more risk aware. It is time to take sensible and proportionate action within universities to ensure that our staff and students are well-trained, supported and equipped to do the work we ask of them. The duty of care is as global in its implications as is any aspect of university business. The fact that both students and staff operate ever more internationally and thus venture increasingly into potentially hazardous, complex and remote environments in the course of their work and study, brings new challenges to the university in terms of ensuring that the infrastructure provided matches the evolving needs. Are we doing enough in this respect?

Do you have an opinion on this or an experience to contribute? Please share your thoughts in the comment section!


Image Credit: John Payne on Flickr


sienaAbout the author:

Siena Uiterwijk Winkel is an AMID trainee working as a policy officer at ISS. Her background is in Peace and Conflict studies with a specialization in Child Development and Protection. At ISS she works on Outreach, Engagement and Impact of research.

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