Why universities should embrace the UK and Ireland in an approach to risk – and why trustworthy study abroad partners are part of the solution.

The public health measures taken by the British and Irish governments, while imperfect, should provide assurance to US universities' decision makers in the study abroad context.  They follow a long history of ensuring safe and secure environments.
However, reinvigorating relationships with study abroad partners with expertise of the local, micro-context should be an essential part of risk management.


We have traditionally relied on our governments and the organs of state to provide firm certainties and guidance we can trust. The advent of Covid-19 has seen the governmentsgiving changing advice and making catch-all statementsthat do not provide the level of destination-based certainty that university decision makers have traditionally required.  There is a pressing need to reinforce relationships universities have with Study Abroad providers / International Education Organizations (IEO's)

Yet, an historic approach which has required risk to tend towards zero means the lack of certainty in a Covid-19 environment remains a barrier.  Trust, and honest, open communication between both halves of the university-provider partnership can realize a beyond Covid-19’study abroad experience. Moreover, the UK and Ireland arealready ‘trusted destinations’ for American students and havedeep support networks for universities.  This makes these countries natural places for a thriving study abroad environment beyond 2020.       


The UK and Ireland – decades being secure study abroad destinations

The UK and Ireland have always been popular study abroad locations, with the UK ranking number one and Ireland number six in the 2019 Open Doors report. It is true that part of the appeal of these countries for American students is that both are English speaking and both have familiar cultures.  Importantly, for many American families, both are consistently safe places to spend a significant amount of time away from home. In fact, both countries rank higher than the United States for personal safety on the Social Progress Index. 

The United States has a long history of working with both the UK and Ireland in study abroad programs, with London specifically playing a key role in the creation of the first international education organisation in the 1800s. With longstanding scholarship programs like the Rhodes Scholarship, whose founding aim was to: "forge bonds of mutual understanding and fellowship for the betterment of mankind,” US universities have continued to embed British – and increasingly Irish – study abroad options in these two countries.  In fact, many US universities, such as Syracuse, NYU, and Tufts, have entire campuses in the UK and Ireland for both short and long term studies.  With study abroad providers / international education organizations developing to meet the needs of US universities through other services such as internships, the richness of options and support in the UK and Ireland has only deepened.  

The long history of these bilateral relationships has also seen a number of supportive bodies develop between them.Specifically, study abroad relationships have been enabled through organizations like the British Council, Universities UK, the Association of Study Abroad Providers IrelandThe Association of American Study Abroad Providers  in the UK   and BUTEX  


Enter Covid-19 – the British and Irish response 

Most of Europe, including Ireland, moved to lockdown their populations almost immediately in the middle of March 2020.  The UK and Sweden took a different course, identifying ‘herd immunity’ as an outcome to be reached immediately.  Within two weeks, the government of the UK moved towards lockdown, in keeping with almost all other governments.  The number of cases and deaths over the following weeks in the UK compared to peer countries have been in newspaper headlines since, but the fact is the UK since flattened the initial curve.  Because of this response, neither country was forced to deal with overwhelmed hospitals, and large scale hospital facilities that were built with the purpose of providing additional medical spaces were barely utilized.   

The advice in the UK and Ireland is the same as the advice by scientists everywhere: wear a mask, physically distance andwash hands regularly.  Restaurants, pubs and cafes are taking patrons’ details and pre-booking is necessary.  Any walk-in customers must leave their details.  Hand sanitizer stations are now in most private companies, especially in the hospitality sector.  Face masks are required in all shops and on public transport.  Both populations are reasonably adherent of government guidance with enough goodwill towards their governments to make wise decisions.  Compliance and togetherness is (still) prevalent.  The higher education sector in both countries has cautiously opened from fall 2020 with accommodations in place. 

Both countries have moved to provide confidence in their tourism and hospitality sectors by establishing markers of ‘best practice’.  Specifically, the “Covid-19 Safety Charter” in Ireland and the British “We’re Good To Go” mark are awarded to organizations adhering to Covid-19 best practice.  They are yardsticks for consumers (and international education organizations for that matter) to confidently make plans.  


Public Health or the Economy? 

All countries are walking the ‘public health’ vs ‘opening the economy’ fine line.  On balance, the UK and Ireland have shown, and continue to make, firm decisions based on a ‘public health first’ perspective.  Inevitably, as both countries have opened their economies, incidence rates of Covid-19 have risen.  Neither country has barred residents of any other countries (including the United States), but both have employed quarantine schemes for certain countries.   

Both governments have been quick to act when it comes to putting any incoming passengers from a ‘safe’ country on the ‘need to quarantine’ list.  In July and August respectively, the UK made all incoming and future passengers from Spain and France quarantine – a decision made within a 48-hour period. Both countries have also employed localized, temporary lockdown within their own borders.     

Inevitably, both governments will deal with spikes and as with all countries, cases will not be eradicated in the short term.  The UK and Ireland will manage peaks and troughs.  However, these measures, both domestically and towards visitors from other countries are continued evidence that both the UK and Ireland will continue to take decisive and firm action for public safety to keep Covid cases as low (or lower) than they currently are.  As we learn more about the virus, more targeted measures in wider society and in health systems are common.  This is now firmly the case in both the UK and Ireland.  Testing is now widely available in both countries - including to visitors for free.  Taking a test is now becoming normalized in both populations.  With mitigating measures in place, the fatality rate in both countries is now, by all measures, extremely low.  Confidence that both governments are taking necessary measures evidenced by full degree seeking international students still coming to both countries.  In the case of the UK, Fall 2020 has even seen a rise in students from outside of the UK/EU coming to the country.   


Decision making and when / if to send students.  It’s about more than observing governments 

If risk management professionals and directors of study abroad offices were only to look at how different countries are tackling Covid-19, next steps might be easier than they currently are.  The sector specific considerationsare well known – the parental perspective, central universities taking a global rather than a country-by-country perspective, the intersection of study abroad and enrolment management, insurance considerations and so on.  How universities are satisfying these considerations in a Covid climate is however less publicized. 

Universities’ internal approach has been set by government guidance which has traditionally been a solid crutch.  However, confusing messages have been a feature of the international operating environment and have seen a break in trust with how government can deal with such an unprecedented situation. Herd immunity.  Vaccine. Quarantine.  Stay at home orders. Lockdown. Don’t mix with family members.  Mix with family members.  Bleach.  In many countries, there is a clear erosion of trust in the authorities.  It has been compounded by misinformation which has been swift to circulate online.  The abundance of information and commentary is not conducive to firm action being taken by any given university or college.   

The fundamental question the international education sector must ask itself is this: with a likelihood that Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, what is an acceptable level of risk and how do we go about mitigating it? 

As educators who inherently believe in the value to wider society of cross cultural exchangewe must get to the point of arriving at a comfortable level of threat. 


Building an approach to risk – beyond the traditional supports 

A central pillar of universities’ risk mitigation approach has traditionally been provided by the guidance of the CDC and Department of State.  These will always be the most important anchors for an approach to risk mitigation.  They are an easy go-to, with a small number of simple levels that all stakeholders can reference, including of course the insurance providers which universities use and of course each State within America.  However, universities are already wrestling with how far they should dilute their reliance from CDC and Department of State guidelines when both have stakeholders other than universities.  The CDC letter on March 9, 2020 stating that universities should "consider postponing or canceling student international travel programs" was not the definitive guidance many were hoping for. 

The Department of State’s decision to allow threat levels to be decided on a country by country basis has helped to an extent.  However, there are varying rates of transmission within countries and most of the traditional study abroad destinations are classified at a high threat level.  This includes the UK and Ireland with their solid government measures having an objectivelyfirmimpact.  Universities must ask themselves how they can build a nimble, trustworthy approach if they want study abroad to continue. 


The University / Study Abroad Provider relationship is crucial 

A clear path ahead lies within the relationship that study abroad providers already share with universities.  This relationship has always been built on trust between both parties and a consistent exchange of information.  This exchange must be strengthened and deepened.  These IEO's have always provided the support and safety protocols that universities have trusted while their students are overseas. 

These provisions are well documented but it is worth summarizing some of them here.  

Staff and faculty are trained in both physical and mental health first aid. There is a strong focus on pastoral care with entire teams dedicated to making students feel comfortable and safe. Students can come to anyone at any time with any health concerns and they will be directed to the appropriate place, whether that is a doctor, counsellor, or other professional who can assist. In a case where a student is afraid or embarrassed to come forward, staff and faculty know what signs to look for and can help indirectly when and where possible.   

Study Abroad providers are experts in their context, and those who specialize in particular destinations will be well-versed in best practice around minimizing risk in a city-specific context.  This is as true in the era of Covid-19 as before.  

With clear public health messaging in the UK and Ireland, the benefits a trustworthy partner can provide to a US university are significant.  A good provider will be keen to offer advice and best practice at any given time – it goes without saying that a fluid situation will require a swift change of risk management protocol on the part of the provider.  This should be seen as natural and to be encouraged: solid, core competency around risk management and mitigation doesn't mean that tweaking the approach as circumstances change should come as a shock.  In fact, it's completely desirable and shows a proactive, responsive approach.   

A reinvigoratedlevel of communication, grounded in trust that a good provider is the local expert must be reciprocal.  If providers are entrusted to provide the safety and support protocols to students when they are overseas it follows that universities should keep open lines of communication with providers.  Especially in a crisis, it’s important that providers know what universities are telling their students. 

Destinations like the UK and Ireland that have been viewed as traditionally open andculturally dynamic countries, are responding to the challenges of Covid-19.  The UK and Ireland represent objective successes in dealing with Covid-19 and the ‘public health first’ approach.  When it comes to Study Abroad, they are especially conducive environments for US universities to prioritize as part of their risk management strategies.  For those of us who believe that active educational experiences foster cultural intelligence, studying in open societies like the UK and Ireland are more important than ever.  Through sharing information, even in a study abroad capacity there is a real opportunity to foster a global response to this pandemic.

The British government’s national slogan is: ‘stay alert, control the virus and save lives’. The study abroad community needs to: firstly, stay alert to how different countries are embracing the challenges of Covid-19.  Secondly, exert a level of control over the virus through reinvigorated local collaboration with partners responsive to a country-based context.   Finally, save lives by embracing study abroad opportunities that unlock futures.  

FIE is the UK and Ireland’s expert study abroad provider. We believe in values-driven, active study abroad programs.  FIE staff have an expert understanding of both the local environment and the US context

We believe in long-lasting, sustainable relationships and acting in the best interests of our university partners and their students.  Please see here for our Custom Programs page.

We offer semester and quarter courses, first year programming options and concentrations such as Leadership London and Comparative Public Health.  Our Student Global Leadership Conference every spring attracts students from across the USA, the UK, Ireland and wider Europe


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