Assessing risk for residence abroad

Author: John Canning

© Dr John Canning


Risk assessment is a commonly used technique in preparing for fieldwork in the Earth Sciences. The technique can be adapted for use by students going on Residence Abroad. By identifying potential hazards and the likelihood of them occurring, students can be better prepared for their year abroad and decrease the possibilities of problems occurring or ensure that they are better prepared when difficulties arise.

Related resources by keyword:
Geography  Intercultural competence  Legal issues  Residence abroad  Risk  Study abroad  Work placement  Year abroad 

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Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Duty of care

3. Understanding and assessing risk

4. Limits to risk assessment

5. Conclusions and Recommendations


Related links

1. Introduction

In 1996, two sailors in the Ukraine raped a female student undertaking Residence Abroad. The fact that her UK institution was cleared of failing in its duty of care in a subsequent court case should not detract from the extreme seriousness of the incident and the clear longer term distress suffered by the student (see Scottish Court of Sessions 2004 ). Although incidents like these are fortunately rare, up to half of UK citizens going aboard get ill or injured during their trip. One in twenty have to visit the doctor and 1 in 100 will be admitted to hospital ( Briggs & Habib 2003 :9). However, when one considers that these figures include holidaymakers spending only one or two weeks abroad - usually in low-risk countries - it is evident that students spending a whole year abroad are very likely to fall ill, get injured, need to visit the doctor or be admitted to hospital.

As part of the Area Studies Project, the Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES) ran two events on overseas fieldwork. Whilst Modern Languages and Earth Sciences are very different disciplines, both place a great importance in students spending time outside the UK. Risk assessment is a common preparation technique in Earth Sciences; this article shows how risk assessment can also be useful for preparing students in Languages and related studies.

This article does not recommend the elimination of all risk from Residence Abroad - indeed, this would be impossible, and is also probably undesirable - but rather it argues for a considered assessment of risk . We recognise that students take risks and gain from them. Also, we want students to become interculturally competent, to improve their language skills and gain new life skills, recognising that they may be taking risks in order to achieve this. But a proper recognition of hazards and calculation of risk means that steps can be taken to manage the risk.

2. Duty of care

Employers and service providers have a duty of care to their employees and customers, and this constitutes a minimum legal requirement. Each institution should have carried out a risk assessment in its capacity as an employer, and residence abroad should have been considered as part of this.

Although there is no official definition of duty of care', it may be defined as:

The duty which rests upon an individual or organisation to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to ensure the safety of any person involved in any activity for which that individual or organisation is responsible ( British Canoe Union ).


The legal obligation to take reasonable care to avoid causing damage. Doctors have a duty of care, as do drivers to other road users, and solicitors to their clients. A breach of duty of care can give risk of a civil claim for negligence ( Cutts 1992 :71-72 ).

A test case in 1990 implies that the level of experience of professionals involved may affect the level of duty of care. The case involved a painting by George Stubbs being valued at £30-£50 by non-London auctioneers, which was sold at auction for £840 then resold at Sotheby's for £88,000. The non-London auctioneers were cleared at the Court of Appeal as their lack of experience was ruled to mean that they had a lower duty of care.

Duty of care' is a minimum legal standard. Residence Abroad is an academic service and a marketing tool. HE Institutions provide a service and students are customers; service providers have obligations and customers have rights under consumer protection legislation (see Ite 2004 ). (See also the Good Practice Guide article on Residence Abroad for Language students by Jim Coleman).

3. Understanding and assessing risk

Risk and hazards are complimentary concepts: a risk is the chance, high or low, that somebody will be harmed by a hazard ( Health and Safety Executive 1994 ), a hazard being anything that can cause harm.

In most cases no professional or expert advice and no specific qualifications are required to carry out a risk assessment, although almost all employers are obliged to undertake one. A basic assessment can be carried out quite easily ( HSE 1994 , Higgitt & Bullard 1999 ).

A short Health and Safety Executive guide ( HSE 1994 ) outlines five steps in risk assessment:

  1. Look for hazards.
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how.
  3. Evaluate the risks and decide whether existing precautions are adequate or whether more should be done.
  4. Record your findings.
  5. Review your assessment and revise it if necessarily.

3.1 Types of hazard

Social, cultural and political hazards

Most Languages departments prepare their students well for these kinds of risks. However, particularly careful attention ought to be given to situations where these risks are particularly high. Social etiquette, morals, style of dress and religious beliefs are examples of risks in this category. Violation of these cultural factors could place a student at risk of harm.

Environmental and geological hazards

Risks such as weather, dangers from falling rocks, avalanches etc. are all too familiar to earth scientists studying these phenomena, but language students should also consider the risk of these hazards. In particular, a student may be unfamiliar with living and working in mountainous regions, regions susceptible to severe weather or regions with very hot or very cold climates. Sunburn, dehydration and frostbite, in particular, are common occurences, yet they can have serious consequences.

Occupational hazards

In some cases these hazards will be the same as are found in a similar workplace in the UK, but language barriers can significantly increase the risk of harm. A student will incur higher risks if s/he does not understand technical terms, or non-technical vocabulary relating to Health and Safety, especially if working near a factory production line or dangerous machinery.

Biological hazards

These risks include certain diseases (airborne, sexually transmitted etc.) and dangers of certain flora and fauna. A student may be exposed to certain infections and diseases such malaria and Dengue fever. For example, travellers planning to spend more than six months in southern Europe are advised to get immunised against Hepatitis B. The risks of HIV-AIDS should be well known by now, but it is estimated that thousands of travellers from the UK are engaging in unprotected sex with people they meet abroad ( BBC 2004 ). Other hazards include exposure to unfamiliar plants and animals and eating contaminated food - food poisoning is possibly the most common illness suffered by UK citizens abroad.

Situations affecting risk

Risk may be increased or decreased according to gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and disability. This emphasises the importance of students being involved in the risk assessment process. Other significant factors include activities undertaken (NB for insurance purposes hazardous sports' may include football, not just skiing), town, city, village etc. of residence (hazards and risks are not evenly distributed across a country's geographical space), language proficiency , especially at the beginning of the year abroad, and, finally, uncertainty - this concerns unknowable factors or where there is no way of assessing risk, for example it is not possible to assess the probability of a student's next door neighbours being pleasant or unpleasant people (see Smith 2000: 863).

3.2 Assessing risk

Risk assessment does not need to be complicated or mathematical. Risks can be conceived as high / medium / low. The assessment can be carried out either by teaching staff with good knowledge of the host countries or by the students themselves. In fact, involving the students in the risk assessment can be beneficial and help students recognise hazards and the risk of them occurring. The following risk assessment table asks two questions and plots them on a matrix: what is the risk of a particular hazard occurring (y' axis), and if that hazard occurs how severe are the consequences (x' axis)?

Table 1. Degree of risk

Likelihood of
hazard occurring
Severity of consequence if event occurs
High High High Medium Effectively zero
Medium High Medium Medium/Low Effectively zero
Low Medium/Low Low Low Effectively zero
Negligible Effectively zero Effectively zero Effectively zero Effectively zero

(Source: Adapted from University of Oxford, School of Geography and the Environment)

An event which occurs in the top left-hand corner of the matrix is an event with a high likelihood of occurring with severe consequences. Events at the bottom right of the matrix are unlikely to occur and would not have severe consequences, even if they did. An example of how this matrix may be filled in is given in Table 2. High Risks have been shaded in red, medium risks in orange and the lowest risks in green.

Table 2. Examples of risk

Likelihood of
hazard occurring

Severity of consequence if event occurs
(Examples of kinds of risks)
High Student work placement with military in Baghdad Failure to follow local customs Failure to follow local customs Failure to follow local customs
Medium Failure to follow local customs Food poisoning Getting sunburnt Getting lost
Low Contracting HIV Getting bitten by a snake Contracting West Nile Virus Temporary power cut in temperate climate
Negligible Earthquake Typhoon Localised flooding Being hit on the head by an apple falling off a tree

Areas in red may be declared unacceptable risks. These may include travel to countries against the advice of the FCO and/or undertaking activities that insurance companies regard as high risk (either by high premiums or refusing insurance altogether).

Areas in orange are key. Depending on the host country concerned, these may include a fairly high risk that students will have issues to resolve with certain local customs and etiquette (though the consequences of violation may vary), and certain geological and environmental risks.

Areas in green are not substantial risks, but should be acknowledged where identified. These are hazards that are either inconsequential if they occur or there is a low risk of them occurring, even when their consequences are severe.

3.3 Reducing risk

Once risk has been assessed, steps can be taken to reduce the risks or avoid the hazard. Strategies should include:

  1. Preparation sessions for students undertaking Residence Abroad. Most institutions have some form of preparation, but provision varies in terms of length/ amount and whether the preparation is optional or compulsory and/or general or country specific.
  2. Increasing knowledge of the host country (guidebooks can be helpful).
  3. Have emergency telephone numbers and contacts at hand.
  4. Using a preparation checklist ( Nash 2000 , University of Liverpool ).

4. Limits to risk assessment

Risk assessment is a profoundly cultural activity; this is particularly the case where the risks and hazards relate to culture rather than non-human agents. Hazards perceived by UK staff and their students may not be perceived as such by people in the host country. Cultural mores also affect risk and students may be encouraged to participate or encouraged not to participate in certain activities, not because of any perceived risk, but due to the cultural acceptability of a particular activity. For example, female students, in particular, living with families in certain countries may be prevented or discouraged from travelling alone, not because of the risk of harm, but due to a culture that deems this to be morally unacceptable.

Situations that may be assessed as high risk by students and staff in the UK may be perceived differently by residents of the host country. Hazards relating to water quality or dangerous animals, for example, may not be perceived as hazards by people who encounter these every day. Students could therefore be encouraged or pressurised into undertaking activities they may otherwise have avoided.

Some risks can only be assessed in situ and experience can lead to a re-evaluation of risk. information that the researcher previously took for granted as knowledge' about the society turns out to be unreliable if not obviously false ( Sidaway 1992 :404 ).

5. Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. The duty of care HEIs have to their students is their minimum legal duty.
  2. Knowledge of hazards may decrease the risk of the hazard occurring or the severity of the consequences if the hazard occurs, as students will be better prepared.
  3. Risk assessment is useful and does not needed to be complicated.
  4. Any policy should be cleared with the person in charge of Health and Safety at your institution.
  5. Students should be involved in the risk assessment.
  6. Risk Assessment is culturally situated; it is useful, but it is not infallible.


This article does not constitute legal advice. The Subject Centre advises that policies drawn up with respect to residence aboard are cleared by the person in charge of Health and Safety at your institution.


BBC (2004). Holiday sex fuels disease fears

Briggs, R. & N. Habib (2003). Healthy Travel. Effective Communication to Improve Travel Health Outcomes. London: Foreign Policy Centre/ Nuffield/ Control Risks Group.

Cutts, M. (1992). Making Sense of English: The Law. Edinburgh: Chambers.

European Disability Forum (1999). Free Movement of Disabled People in the European Union: An examination of relevant Community provisions and a discussion of the barriers to free movement. Doc. EDF-99/11 . Brussels: European Disability Forum

European Disability Forum (2001). Analysis of the EU directive on Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation.EDF-01/8 Brussels: European Disability Forum.

Heath and Safety Executive (1994). 5 steps to risk assessment. Caerphilly: Health and Safety Executive.

Higgitt, D. & J. Bullard (1999). Assessing Fieldwork Risk for Undergraduate Projects. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 23, 3:441-49.

Ite, U (2004). The Changing role of student support during overseas fieldwork and cultural exchange. PowerPoint Presentation of paper presented at GEES event Overseas Fieldwork & Cultural Exchanges in HE: Student Support & Safety.' London 28 January 2004.

Nash, D. (2000). Doing independent overseas fieldwork. 1: practicalities and pitfalls. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 24, 1:139-49 .

Scottish Court of Sessions (2004). McLean v. University of St Andrews [2004] ScotCS 45.

Sidaway, J. (1992). In other worlds: on the politics of research by First World' geographers in the Third World'. Area 24:403-08 .

Smith, D. (2000). Uncertainty. In R. J. Johnston et. al. (eds), The Dictionary of Human Geography. 4 th edition, Oxford: Blackwell

Related links

Area Studies Project - Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

British Canoe Union

GEES - Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
This site contains a report and the PowerPoint presentations from a recent event on Health and Safety.

Health and Safety Executive
Many HSE publications can be downloaded free of charge in PDF format

LARA Project. Learning and Residence Abroad

UKCOSA. Student Activity: Risk Assessment

University of Liverpool Careers Service, Liverpool Year Abroad

University of Oxford, School of Geography and the Environment. Risk Assessments for Fieldwork