22 Apr 2013

Crisis management for international programmes

Crisis management for study abroad programmesLiability issues have encouraged or, in some cases, forced international educators to draw up crisis management protocols and begin the task of assessing the risks inherent in all their international programmes. No one expects international educators to be lawyers, yet we are increasingly being held responsible for understanding the legal consequences of poor implementation of a crisis management strategy. Are we taking unnecessary risks that could backfire on the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students?

Increasing numbers of lawsuits

At present, there is a lack of clear, minimum operating standards that would allow study abroad professionals not only to support and work toward greater safety for their faculty, staff and students, but also to limit the liability their institutions could face. Study abroad lawsuits abound in the USA and we are beginning to see them arise in Europe as well. Lawyers call them ‘educational malpractice’ lawsuits.

One of the first steps in implementing risk assessment is to get a good understanding of the issues facing the field today. NAFSA’s Region XI Risk Assessment and Risk Management Task Force began the task of trying to establish a database of study abroad incidents, and The Forum on Education Abroad took that over and opened up the database to institutions across the USA. Is it time we do the same thing for Europe?

Importance of risk management

Risk management will most definitely increase the probability of success and, because of the strategic planning that it mandates, it will also reduce the impact of crises that arise. The international activities of the institution will benefit from this additional sustainable value. When risk management is done properly, the end result will be a set of organisational structures and policies that will improve the overall delivery of all aspects of the institution’s international education offerings – and not just in times of crisis. It is therefore imperative for international educators to integrate risk analysis and then risk management into the crisis management planning of their offices.

When crisis management saved the day

While working for a small, private university, I set up a crisis management protocol that covered how to handle an emergency overseas that might force the students who were studying abroad to return home and resume classes either online, by independent study or by being absorbed into an already ongoing class on campus. When the USA invaded Iraq, American students (and American citizens in general) felt uneasy about being targeted no matter where they were in the world. Many of them had parents who wanted them to return to the US. My crisis management plan required us to make immediate calls to the host universities or programme providers, as well as to local overseas embassies and consulates, to determine what plans they had in place to protect the students and whether they felt the threat to be real or perceived. While I spoke to the partners (universities, consulates, and study abroad providers), my secretary followed our protocol of describing to anxious parents what we were doing to obtain the latest information, what our local partners were telling us and how we were counselling our students. Again, according to our protocol, we phoned every parent once a day to keep them updated and we instructed the students to call their parents every day as well as to check in with us (via e-mail or phone). As a result, there was no parental panic and the students were reassured by our local overseas partners that they would be supervised very carefully and that an evacuation plan was in place to get them home should the situation become more dangerous. None of our students returned home early; they all finished their overseas semesters in a timely fashion.

Has your institution been involved in a crisis with regards to international students and how did you handle it? This blog post aims to be a shared clearinghouse for issues facing study abroad administrators. How can we gauge the risks inherent in programmes we organise? How can we mitigate those risks?

By Regine Lambrech, International Education Consulting, CT, USA

  • I had the pleasure to attend an EAIE course “crisis management – the international dimensions”
    last week and for me, there are some conclusions when thinking about the increasing mobility
    of our staff and students:

    * Generally the factor “internationalisation/student exchange/staff mobility” has to be a part
    of emergency/crisis protocols of an higher education institute – there are many other aspects
    to obey in international crisis then in local crisis situations…

    * The standard protocols in students exchange programs and staff mobility programs should be reviewed
    in terms of what information is shared between 2 institutions when exchanging staff/students.
    Reviewed in the aspects “what information gets the staff member/student” and the mentioned
    “what is shared between institutions”. That concerns “who is to be alerted on the outgoing
    university in case of an incident” – “parents/relatives to be informed in case of emergency”,
    emergency numbers/contacts provided to the student/staff- simple things like general emergency
    numbers of emergency services in forein countries (“who [at home and on site]i have to report to,
    if there is a problem”), other things like information about needed insurances …
    If the information set that an outgoing person gets is more standardized all affected universities
    have a much better basis to overcome a crisis situation.

    * One major problem is the lack of information (in various ways)
    Not all the incidents are that big to get information about them in our “common” media channels
    – but “big” enough to have outgoing students involved … an international database, or at least
    a newsfeed/twittergroup whatever, where an university is able to just post “what happened, where
    when” without spending to much time would be a great option to let other universities follow that
    feed and check if there are students inhouse from the place of the incident (parents/relatives
    involved) or the unversity has students on site. A database where I could filter on interesting
    locations or even create email alerts similar to “google alerts” that inform me if somebody has
    posted an incident in a place of interest would be a really great tool, but for the begining a
    simpler solution like twitter posts or equal would also do a great job

    Another part of the “lack of information” issue is – to get information from the incident area.
    I think we should get the universities much tighter in terms of networking. I think that an
    university nearby an area of an incident could provide very useful information about what happenend
    and can help to get information about possible (foreign) students resisting in that area.
    This can be much more efficient than trying various “official”/govermental ways.

    To come to an end –
    I think there can be so much done to create a better base for crisis management in the international
    context if the higher education institutes get together and find shared and standardized ways for
    crisis management

    (University of applied sciences, St. Pölten, Austria)

  • Regine Lambrech

    I think that your point about using local universities to obtain information about crises would only work in developed countries. Many students study or do internships in developing countries where “pastoral” care is not standard and crisis management protocols are not in place. Many do not have international offices that are equipped to handle a crisis and local infrastructure might be insufficient to enable them to provide help to students. I think that going through official channels should not be avoided because embassies and consulates do have contacts that extend beyond what the university normally has.

    If, when you speak of a database of places where crises took place, you mean large scale crises, e.g. kidnapping of a bus, bombings, etc., that is something that could be of use. OSAC (the U.S. Dept. of State Overseas Security Advisory Council) maintains a daily digest of events around the world and universities have joined businesses in being a part of this group. Many crises are small in nature and are not of concern to other institutions: e.g. a professor accompanying students on a study tour has a heart attack. What are the plans in place to provide for the safety and continuity of the program and its participants? That is crisis planning that affects only that university. Good planning would be for the lead professor to establish contacts with local universities before finalizing the course so that someone from the local university might be able to take over until a reinforcement could be sent from the home university.
    You are right to say that partner institutions should be aware of each others’ crisis management plans. That is the purpose of developing a written protocol; that way, everyone involved knows what the process is in the case of an emergency.

  • Philip Shea

    Fortunately, in Canada, we do not have such a litigious mindset but that does give us a “blank cheque” to not be proactive.