Bad things happen everywhere – international travel risk mitigation for higher education

Dr Nello Angerilli field trip

Dr Nello Angerilli with colleagues at Polytechnic Manufacturing Bandung and BINUS University, Indonesia

Travel can be inherently risky, but this risk can be managed or mitigated. The list of bad things that can happen is long. Some risks associated with international travel can lead to critical incidents for students, staff or faculty-members are listed below. I define a 'critical incident' as an event in which the life of a university employee or student is at risk or a death has occurred, examples include:

  • Terrorism, kidnapping, hijacking, and piracy
  • Lawlessness, violent crimes, threats, opportunistic crime, organised crime and imprisonment
  • Corrupt practices aimed at extortion or which otherwise reduce societal protection of individual rights and safety
  • War, insurgency, political upheaval, coups, and civil unrest
  • Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, tornados, storms, mudslides, earthquakes, tsunamis, snowstorms, and drought
  • Infectious diseases and pandemics, such as influenza, SARS, and Avian flu
  • Travel-related infections, such as malaria, hepatitis, typhoid fever, dengue fever, and other medical emergencies
  • Lack of air quality, rural isolation, language, and cultural estrangement
  • Vehicle and other (e.g. recreational) accidents and airline catastrophes
  • Hotel and other fires
  • Common travel problems, such as lost luggage, invalid/expired/forgotten passports, pickpockets, and scheduling delays
  • Lack of legal/administrative compliance (i.e. immigration and visa challenges)

What can we do to minimise risk in the event of a critical incident, and how do we respond appropriately and effectively? My approach follows four steps:

Plan – including the development of a robust and reliable risk assessment protocol that is strategic and practical, and is accompanied by a critical incident management plan. Existing policies and guidelines should be reviewed and revised as appropriate, and policy gaps should be filled.

Consult broadly with the university community to ensure the plan and its associated policies, guidelines, and procedures are familiar and accepted across the institution.

Practice incident management procedures to be sure they work and relevant individuals and units understand and know their roles by heart.

Engage with international partners to be sure we understand what to expect from each other in the event of a critical incident.

Three core elements need to be at the heart of a travel risk management plan:

Preparation. It is critical that travellers are well informed of the risks they might encounter (based on a risk assessment protocol), both en route and at their destination, prior to departure. That is, they must be as well prepared as possible prior to departure regarding what to do in the event of an emergency incident.

Tracking. It is important for an institution to know where in the world their travellers are at all times.

Response capacity. It is important to have a very robust response plan, including access to incident management professionals who can provide assistance in 'the field' if necessary.

These three points may look easy to implement, but it can be difficult. Common constraints include:

  • Lack of recognition of the importance to provide 'duty of care' to travellers
  • Responsibility for travel risk may not have been appropriately assigned, if at all
  • Some travellers may believe that they are quite capable of dealing with risk management on their own and, further, may object to revealing their travel plans
  • Local partners are not able to provide assistance for a variety of reasons

Consider the following examples that are based on real events:

A senior faculty member suffers a heart attack in a remote international location. Local first responders agree that they are not equipped to deal with the nature of the emergency and recommend evacuation.

Would a faculty member from your institution know what to do if they were sufficiently conscious to act on their own? Would they have documents with them to guide first responders or a host institution on what to do? What would your institution do in such a case if you were made aware of the emergency? Would you know where this person was located? Would you know how to arrange an evacuation? Who would pay for it?

New Zealand earthquake - Lyttleton cafe

A series of earthquakes devastated the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2010 and 2011. Thousands of international students and many visiting staff were studying and doing research in the city at the time.

How long would it take you to determine if one or more of your students or staff were in Christchurch at the time of the earthquake? What kind of assistance would you expect from your partner institution(s) in the city? What if they couldn't help? What would you advise your travellers to do, if you were able to contact them – given that communication systems were severely disrupted? How would you contact them if they did not contact you?

A student planning to conduct field research on peace and reconciliation wishes to travel to a region in a country that has recently experienced war. He will be working with a local NGO and a private university engaged in research focused on reconstruction. He has submitted his thesis proposal and his intentions are clear.

What would happen at your institution in such a case? Do you have protocols to review and approve/reject student travel? Would the student and/or his supervisor be aware of travel approval protocols? How would the application be processed? What would your institution do to assist the student in the event of a critical incident while they are in the field?

We often cannot prevent bad things from happening to an international traveller, but we can organise ourselves to minimise the risk of exposure for the traveller and our institution; and develop policies and procedures that will maximise the delivery of effective assistance in the event of a critical incident.

Some concrete action recommendations are:

Travel committee. Create a committee to maintain oversight over and provide ongoing advice regarding risk and emergency management policies, procedures, and responses to incidents.

Incident reports. If an incident occurs, the responsible manager must ensure that the traveller completes an incident report. An appropriate Incident Report Form will be developed, lodged in a website to facilitate accessibility – and hopefully never need to be used! In the event of an incident, the report form will be a source of learning for policy and process improvement.

Insurance can be expensive, but it's invaluable to cover medical, evacuation, and kidnap and ransom incidents. A medical evacuation could cost more than US $50,000. Security and natural disaster evacuations can be more expensive, because travel is sometimes restricted by the security or disaster event(s).

Incident simulation. Regular and systematic simulation and practice of international travel incidents and their mitigation should be implemented by the travel committee. A range of incidents should be practiced with a range of participants, including those from partner institutions.

While it is not possible to pre-empt every possible risk, or plan for every eventuality, having a risk management plan and process in place will ensure your staff and students are in the best possible starting position when undertaking international travel. If your institution does not already have a plan in place, then I hope you find my tips useful.


ACU Internationalisation CommunityDr Nello Angerilli was Associate Vice President, International, at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and led the internationalisation process at the university in support of the objective to become one of Canada's most international universities. He sits on several boards, including the Board of Directors for Academics Without Borders.

Previously, he has been the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Student Services and International at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Associate Vice President, Students and International, at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in higher education and scientific research, as well as the design and management of international development projects involving education, environment and gender. He has authored more than 100 scientific papers and technical publications.

Dr Angerilli has been a team leader or consultant on more than 20 international missions with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, Canadian International Development Agency, and the UK's Department for International Development while working in Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Bolivia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Egypt and Zambia. Dr Angerilli was born in Canada, received a BSc and PhD in Biological Science from SFU and lived in Indonesia for ten years working for SFU while developing faculties of science at five Indonesian state universities.


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Last modified on 08/02/2018
Tags: Member Communities, ACU Internationalisation Community, Internationalisation