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By Carol Dalton

Jul 23rd, 2019

Risk management teams in higher education

UK universities provide the opportunity to study almost any subject in diverse settings. This creates incredible opportunities, along with many challenges and risks.

According to Universities UK, in 2017/18 there were 2.34 million undergraduates and postgraduates taking courses at universities in the UK. This population forms a huge higher education student community. 

Take into account that staff numbers increase the population by a further 429,560, and you see why many campuses can be compared to small towns in size and provision of services. Of course, a stark difference with a university campus is the significant proportion of young adults on site, which in itself poses specific risks. 

In this article we seek to gain insight into several of the risk areas that challenge health and safety and risk management teams in higher education establishments. The starting point is the duties owed to students and staff, but we must not forget about the many visitors. Significant time, commitment and collaboration needs to be invested in identifying and reducing risk to discharge all duties. In turn this should reduce accidents and injuries, and consequently limit exposure to compensation claims, the potential for criminal prosecution, and reputational damage.

What are the main risks to students?

Higher education provides incredible study, sports and social opportunities for young people. It may also be the first time students have lived away from home. This can be a positive experience, allowing development of independence and life skills, but there are also risks.

It is reported that in 2017/18 over 450,000 students travelled to the UK to study. Foreign students may be particularly vulnerable, especially if unfamiliar with British culture and language. Many universities have a formal programme designed to support these students, which can include manuals in different languages, as well as mulitlingual signage on campus.

Universities offer students opportunities to try different sports and attend events and activities. It is important to provide evidence that a project or event has been assessed and appropriate measures have been taken to discharge the duty of care. In the event of an accident, with a consequential claim, a university has to show it assessed the risk and reduced it to a reasonable level.

Any defence may make reference to section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006, which states that: 
A court considering a claim in negligence or breach of statutory duty may, in determining whether the defendant should have taken particular steps to meet a standard of care (whether by taking precautions against a risk or otherwise), have regard to whether a requirement to take those steps might: 

  1. Prevent a desirable activity from being undertaken at all, to a particular extent or in a particular way. 

  2. Discourage persons from undertaking functions in connection with a desirable activity. 

The law recognises that it is not possible or even desirable to remove all risk from every activity. However, a note of caution should be sounded, as it is important to avoid ambiguity in risk assessments.


  • They can be understood easily. 
  • Staff are trained and re-trained. 
  • They are implemented on a day-to-day basis. 

While the greatest risks may be perceived in social and sporting activities, or trips; there is the potential for risk in everyday studies. Many universities work with industry and will have research facilities where experiments are undertaken. 

Northumbria University was fined £400,000 following a serious incident: R (HSE) v Northumbria University at Newcastle [2017]. The prosecution arose because two sports science students had been seriously injured after taking part in an experiment, which could have had tragic consequences. The experiment was designed to measure the effect of caffeine on exercise, but a mistake when inputting the figures into a calculator led to the students being given 100 times more than the correct dose.

Another risk to student welfare relates to the problems associated with the misuse of alcohol and illegal substances. There have been press reports of accidents following nights out in university towns and cities. In one tragic case a student died in 2016 due to the alcohol consumed during an initiation. In response Newcastle University confirmed it had made changes to how it addressed and raised awareness of the risk of alcohol. Accordingly, many universities will have reviewed programmes for risk awareness and for providing student guidance. 

Health and safety advisors will have considered the increasing concern about student mental health. In the University of Bristol alone it is reported that 12 students have, or are suspected to have, killed themselves since September 2016. An inquest was heard in May 2019 on a student suicide. One father of a student subsequently called for a change in the data protection policy so universities have authority to share information with parents if there are serious concerns about a student’s wellbeing.

There may be many reasons for mental health issues, including pressure from studies, the financial burden, social media and lifestyle, as reported by the Mental Health Foundation. All these factors are increased when students leave home and are without their familiar network. While these tragic events may not result in a breach of duty that could found an action in a civil claim, universities are committed to student welfare. Consequently they are likely to be reviewing the provision of support and guidance available to students in relation to mental health risks. 

In an article reported in The Independent in March 2018 it was stated that 62% of students said they had experienced harassment, assault or both, while at university. This was based on a poll carried out by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Room. If an employee perpetrates an assault (on a student or another employee) it is well established that an employer could be vicariously liable if there is a sufficiently close connection between the act and the employment, even though it may amount to a criminal act. It is essential that universities respond appropriately to reports made in line with their policies and procedures. 

What about risks to visitors on campus?

Claims for injury as a result of an accident caused by a fault with the campus may well be pursued in negligence or for breach of the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957. Section 2 of the Act may be familiar; it states: 
‘The common duty of care is a duty to take such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable to see that the visitor will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purposes for which he is invited or permitted by the occupier to be there.’ 

Assessing a campus for risk cannot be underestimated

Consideration must be given for every person that might be using a campus, whether a student, staff member or visitor. It is important to factor in the use of services and facilities. While a common perception may be that use of university facilities is seasonal, it is not. They can be used year round, for example residences and conference facilities may be rented by businesses during student holidays and many universities run summer schools.

Universities may have state of the art buildings and facilities, combined with historic buildings; all of which have to suit a variety of modern needs. These need to be assessed for their suitability. Don’t overlook university campuses internal roads and paths. There may be systems for inspecting and maintaining these, which could include gritting in adverse weather conditions. 

As well as ensuring the integrity of the buildings and infrastructure, universities have to consider a host of other aspects of university life. There may be sports fields and sports facilities such as tennis courts and hockey pitches, open parkland, wooded areas and natural pools to factor into the equation. 

Campaigns to educate young people about the dangers of rivers and waterways have gained national attention following drownings associated with intoxication. Universities may join forces with charities and organisations to raise awareness, such as the Don’t Drink and Drown Campaign. While this may extend beyond the scope of the legal duty of care a university has to a student, it may well form part of a wider social responsibility. 

How diverse are the risks to employees?

It is important to remember that considerations are not restricted to risks to lecturers alone. There is a multitude of skills employed across campus life. The different roles may include librarians, business services teams, health and safety advisors, as well as the teams in catering, maintenance and grounds staff. The list can be long and the risks diverse. Employers should ensure all university staff operate successfully, safely and efficiently.

The law in respect of employers’ liability is not unique to higher education and readers will be familiar with workplace regulations: in broad terms the need to assess and eliminate or reduce risk to employees. Often the requirement under regulations is to reduce a risk ‘to the lowest level reasonably practicable’. 

As an example, a claim was made by a carpenter working for the University of Bristol after a kitchen wall cupboard in one of the university residences fell on him, causing an injury: Johnson v University of Bristol [2017]. His job had been to repair the cupboard, but he alleged the University was in breach of its duty to him. He stated that the cupboard was work equipment, which had failed. At the trial the Court of Appeal held in favour of the University in what is a reassuring and sensible decision, serving to demonstrate there must be limits on what is deemed to be work equipment. However, this case also highlights the wide scope of legal duties on universities. 

As well as accident claims, universities may face claims for disease. These may include historic claims for exposure to asbestos, leading to disease many years later. Other claims could include any number of non-accident related injuries, such as claims for psychiatric injury. 

In one stress case we handled, the staff member bringing the claim had worked off campus in a detention centre, providing education to detainees. Inevitably supervising employees working away from campus poses greater challenges, but in an age where we communicate easily, and can provide multi-channel access to information, it is important steps are taken to ensure staff are monitored and assessed. 

What about risks away from campus?

In a university setting, lecturers and researchers can be required to travel the world; possibly visiting remote or inhospitable locations where greater risks arise. Detailed investigations and enquiries can be undertaken from the UK in preparation. It is essential staff are forearmed with the knowledge and capability to undertake a dynamic risk assessment on locations as needs arise.

It is important to have a framework, for example outlining clearly what steps to take, for example, if wind speed on a mountain increases, or temperatures soar. There may be guidance to specify levels that trigger action to stop, rest or turn back. However, health and safety teams cannot anticipate every risk, so staff should assess risk in the moment. Importantly they also need clarity on how to access support and guidance. 

Practical pointers

Universities limiting risk exposure should seek feedback from students and staff in every area to ensure health and safety teams gain a clear understanding of the main risks. Following this groundwork risk assessments should be developed before training is given and guidelines drafted. It is always preferable for training to be interactive and practical. Provide regular updates and reminders and review policies regularly.

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