For SUs, the biggest risk now is doing nothing

Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union

Understanding, communicating and practicing your “risk appetite” is a vital part of leadership – and navigating the pandemic has done nothing but reinforce that view.

This week in England the Prime Minister announced a radical change in risk management tactics, moving away from the state, the law and regulation and moving towards “personal responsibility”.

So we are now moving away from the sort of regulatory interventions that saw Boris Johnson impose an alcohol ban on the tube, or when the smoking ban was implemented, or fines for littering and, more recently, when Covid regulations were established for the first 15 months of the pandemic.

Instead, on matters of face coverings, social distancing, capacity at events and travel he has suddenly discovered a libertarian streak and said he wants to deregulate. He’s taking off the government shackles and introducing this new era of personal responsibility to be exercised by employers, business owners and the public.

It’s ironic that this newly liberal PM appears in the same week that we’ve seen the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed in the Commons – given many see that Bill as an attack on civil liberties and a major extension of state power and would certainly have a significant effect on student protest.

It’s on you now

As the responsibility for making judgements is now passed on to the public and institutions, we now have to step up to the plate and take the reins without a legislative safety net to help. We no longer have law to steer us and enforce the necessary action to keep our staff, students and wider communities safe – and instead we are asked to use our own judgement and general “guidance”, which we know can lack some of the rigour and consistency normally considered important for matters of public health or health and safety.

So we do need to have a deeper understanding of our own risk appetite. We know we can legally fill our classrooms, sports halls, venues and residencies back up to max capacity (it always was max capacity for residencies – there’s an interesting risk judgement), take down the signage on one way systems and hand washing, remove our face coverings, turn off the table service app, hug all our mates, shake hands, sing, dance, cheer and return to the office – but does that mean we should do all of those things? The answer will be determined by thinking about risk.

Risk appetite legally sits with our trustees, and the challenge for them will be to think beyond the “risk register/traffic light” system of monitoring traditional financial and compliance risks.

They’ll need to consider the issues ahead of September. Plenty of SUs don’t have a board meeting between now and September, and some will but won’t have a major item on “risk appetite” programmed. That will probably need to change.

Wait and see

Some SUs might take the approach of awaiting to see what their university’s risk appetite is, and just following their framework. Clearly there would be an issue if a university wanted their SU to take major risks and the SU itself was much more cautious, or vice versa. But SUs as independent charities clearly ought to be thinking about the risk issues themselves and owning a dedicated post-pandemic framework for their work.

Our trustees need to think about staff, students and even public perceptions, and what the appetite is for a balance of freedom and safety. They’ll need to consider what the expectations are between authoritative conformity and individual responsibility. Risk appetite needs to reflect the 18 year old student who longs for the rugby training and wants the team social to head off in to town after being prevented from playing for the previous year, versus the disabled student who suffers serious bronchial problems and is anxious about whether its safe for them to attend the history society field trip. The trustees’ risk appetite will only work if they can translate and share that risk appetite with their staff and with their students to operationalise and embed within day to day lives.

I do think there will be a significant number of students who are very keen to segue into some form of new social norms and are keen to take calculated risks to do so. They are frustrated by a year of lock down, anxious about making new friends and developing a strong sense of place as they move away for the first time and they are, in many cases, less vulnerable to the effects of the virus.

But the student community is not homogenous – either within itself, or even more so when it is considered within a wider community of staff, off campus community and broader public. It has diversity of expectation and need. The trick will to design a risk strategy and approach that offers as much continuity as possible (behaviors that are sustained will become better embedded) but also a risk strategy that people (staff, elected students, general public) can articulate as being proudly communal and mutually respectful. An approach, in other words, that people can talk about as a shared responsibility rather than an individual responsibility, and one that encourages them to think of others needs and vulnerabilities and not just their own.

Southgate

I thought Chris Whitty’s explanation of when he will keep wearing a mask at the July 5th government press briefing was useful. He said that there were 3 situations where he would wear a mask:

  • If he’s in a crowded indoor space because the mask protects other people.
  • If required to do so by a competent authority
  • If someone was uncomfortable with him not wearing one “as a point of common courtesy”.

It’s a great articulation of his risk appetite. It’s the Gareth Southgate explanation of an approach to risk and public health in Covid – it’s proud of being inclusive, encourages values and social consciousness, and promotes communal responsibility.

Arguably, the biggest risk would be doing nothing and relying on the freedoms now created in law. That will likely result in the alienation and anxiety of those students who aren’t comfortable with the speed and direction of travel of the releasing of pandemic controls by the government, the blame of students for the rise in cases and questions about the liabilities held by institutions of taking an approach that lacked a clear consideration of risk.

If we can design risk approaches in our venues, our clubs and societies, our classrooms, our residencies, our refectories and libraries etc. and communicate it in a way which builds consistency, social consciousness and communal responsibility we stand a much better chance of coming through this without government blaming students and universities for the next spike in the tale of the pandemic.

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