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October 24, 2002 Risks to students in study abroad programs increase



by Sarah Binder

The tremendous growth in study abroad programs at Canadian universities in the past decade is exposing a greater number of students to the risk of accidents, illness, death, assault, kidnapping, or acts of war, warned Wayne Myles, director of Queen’s University International Centre.

“When you increase the number of students going abroad, you increase the number of incidents,” Myles told a seminar at Concordia on Feb. 7 organized by Concordia’s Centre for International Academic Co-operation (CIAC) on the risks and responsibilities associated with study abroad.

Rather than cancel these programs, universities would do well to learn to manage risk, he said. “Students learn through experience. Risk is an essential part of any experiential learning. We need to know about the hazards and calculate the risk we want to take.”

More than 1,000 of Queen’s 18,000 students will study abroad this year, compared with fewer than 25 some 15 years ago. Last year, the university faced 23 incidents, including three deaths.

No Canadian university has yet been entangled in a messy lawsuit due to a mishap abroad, Myles said, perhaps because issues of redress tend to be settled out of court in this country.

But tragedies such as the avalanche that killed seven Alberta 15-year-olds on a school ski trip earlier this month show how a respected school and its officials can suddenly find themselves in the harsh public limelight, their actions and policies scrutinized for error, their reputation possibly tarnished. The seminar drew about 45 people from Concordia and other Quebec universities, including McGill, Laval, Université de Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke and UQAM.

There is growing preoccupation with institutional liability in Quebec, where out-of-country study has gained popularity due largely to generous bursaries the provincial government has made available since 2000.

“You can talk all you want about student health and safety, but it takes the threat of institutional liability for an institution to act,” said Myles, who has extensive experience in travel and student services. “It’s a sad fact.”

While bad things happen on campus domestically, Myles said, the risk to students abroad may be compounded by unfamiliarity with the surroundings.

Students should be aware prior to leaving Canada of social, political, cultural, environmental and other factors that could jeopardize their safety. What is the attitude towards gays, for example? What are the transportation rules, what is a safe way to change money? They need to make sure they have proper insurance coverage.

Yet a recent survey concluded that “only 60 per cent of Canadian institutions are doing basic pre-departure preparation of students,” Myles said.

Queen’s established its Emer-gency Support Program (ESP) in 1997. The ESP now includes an emergency protocol, a 24-hour telephone hotline, pre-departure orientation briefings, information forms, and a contact database.

The university aims to make students partners in sharing responsibility for their health and safety abroad. “We don’t hold their hands,” Myles said.

The International Centre which he heads administers the ESP, offers pre-departure orientation, co-ordinates faculty-departmental briefings and contacts participants when disaster strikes. It is a centralized unit, serving incoming and outgoing students.

Fred Francis, deputy director of CIAC, said in an interview that Concordia currently has “a dog’s breakfast” of policies on its international programs. He had invited Myles to Concordia to raise awareness about the need for a more unified approach.

The University Secretariat is in fact working on a policy that would “centralize the infrastructure of student travel,” said Heather Adams-Robinette, co-ordinator of university policies.

The process is still at the fact-finding stage, she said in a telephone interview. “We’re still trying to categorize the different kinds of trips.” Adams-Robinette said the aim is to have a draft policy ready by the end of this academic year.