Insurance issues for students and staff working abroad

Managing travel risks for students and staff studying and working abroad is a tricky business. So how do you know your liability and check you have the right cover?

In order to make their courses more attractive, one card that universities have played increasingly over the past few years is the addition of international travel. Currently an estimated 700,000 UK students are studying abroad. As well as providing semester or year-long ‘study abroad’ and ‘in industry’ options as additions to degree programmes, shorter excursions such as field trips are also popular. Postgraduates, researchers and other academic staff also spend valuable time overseas at conferences, working with foreign academics and conducting research. Interacting with different cultures and environments is a unique experience for staff and students that is impossible to replicate at home.

But it is fair to say that the world has become a more dangerous and unpredictable place, with destinations such as Sri Lanka, Kenya or Hong Kong recently getting sudden ‘all but essential travel’ warnings.

These trends have created important challenges for universities and their service providers. Risk cover specialist UMAL, which is owned by over 100 universities and colleges, has seen annual travel claims double since 2012. Institutions now have formal risk-assessment processes for those needing to work overseas, and some have sophisticated travel management operations.

What are the risks?

Few in HE will have missed the imprisonment last year of Durham University PhD student Matthew Hedges in the UAE on charges of spying, which he continues to deny. Given a life sentence, he was pardoned following heavy lobbying by the British government and several UK universities. Inter-state spats can catch innocents in the crossfire, as the tragic case of US student Otto Warmbier in North Korea shows. He died six days after being returned to the USA having been imprisoned for removing a poster from his hotel.

Despite the newspaper headlines, serious, high-profile incidents such as imprisonment, terrorism, serious injury, kidnap or death are very rare. But institutions need to be ready to handle a crisis of this nature. They can place a heavy burden on staff, distracting them from their regular work which may in turn need to be covered by others. Professional assistance such as PR and legal advice is almost certainly going to be needed.

As an employer, fulfilling your duty of care is key. The victim of a serious incident is likely to need medical and/or psychiatric care, as well as rest and rehabilitation. Care and travel for close family may also be necessary.

While the internet allows travellers to stay in touch with their university, friends and family to a degree undreamed of previously, cybersecurity is another concern. As an example, one travelling academic’s email account was hacked. The criminal sent messages from that account to her family stating that she had been kidnapped and demanding the payment of a ransom. 

The victim was initially blissfully unaware.

Health factors

The vast majority of travel claims are relatively small. “However, the value of the average travel claim has doubled since 2012,” says Dominic Thomas, head of claims at UMAL.

“Why is that? It’s not lost or stolen possessions. Although we do handle a lot of claims for them, the value of electronic equipment has, if anything, fallen over recent years. The main reason is medical expenses, the cost of which is rising by 10% a year. Medical claims now represent over 40% of all travel claims that we handle, up from a third a few years ago, so we are experiencing both an increase in the number of claims, and an increase in their value.”

At the extreme end of the scale, he points to the example of a professor who suffered a brain aneurysm when visiting South America. Fortunately, he was seen by one of the best brain surgeons in the country, but to get home he had to be flown at a lower altitude than those used by commercial jets. Hiring an executive jet cost a six-figure amount.

Medical issues are not confined to sudden incidents. Many students and staff travel with existing conditions such as diabetes and allergies, and the prevalence of both of these has been rising for many years. 

 Following brain surgery, the professor had to be flown home at a lower altitude – the executive jet cost a six-figure amount  

The mental challenge

In focusing on physical health, one must not overlook the risks to mental health that come with foreign travel. The subject has even generated its own conference: Education Without Borders: mental health and wellness in study abroad, which takes place in October in Manchester. 

Looking at business travellers, Scott Cohen, professor of tourism and transport at the University of Surrey, makes several points that are relevant to students and staff abroad in his report The Future of Risk: “Displacement from home to a new cultural and physical environment can lead to a sense of disorientation and confusion, even resulting in ‘overload shock’. Anxieties around safety and security amplify the toll on already stressed travellers.

“Although time away from home provides opportunities to meet new people and renew past bonds, being away from family and friends can engender isolation, depression and emotional distancing.

“Sustained weakening of local ties can lead travellers to feeling detached from a sense of home, increasing the risk of mental illness, as demonstrated by research that found a three-fold increase in psychological insurance claims by travellers as opposed to non-travellers.”

Managing the risk

“There are several questions that institutions need to ask themselves,” recommends Paul Cusition, chief executive of UMAL. “Are there joined-up standard processes and responsibilities for the management of travel that embrace academic departments, HR, legal and travel management? 

How easy is it for staff or students to access up-to-date information on medical, safety and security issues? Conversely, how easy is it for them to innocently make their own arrangements, and leave the institution in the dark? Do they have clear, available and empowered welfare contacts both in country and at home? How thorough is the pre-travel assessment, briefing and training? Is there a feedback loop for negative travel experiences and incidents?”

Duty of care

The duty of care every university and college owes to its students and staff is under the spotlight when it comes to foreign travel. The level of risk is higher than on campus. While some responsibility shifts to a host university or placement company, if there is an incident court judgments and media coverage could damage the home institution’s reputation, hitting student recruitment and causing a loss of funding.

“Travel cover is, of course, part of the solution,” says Thomas. “However, all policies require those who are covered to take reasonable care and mitigate risks. While we always go out of our way to settle claims quickly, money alone cannot always compensate for physical injury or mental trauma.” 


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