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Student supervision


Universities have a legal duty to provide "such supervision as is necessary" to ensure the health and safety of both postgraduate and undergraduate students. When dealing with postgraduate students it is important to understand that this duty cannot be discharged by relying solely upon a student's status or perceived competence. The duty to supervise is delegated to the Head of School/Unit and hence to the member of staff directly responsible for that student (the supervisor). It will never be enough to rely on the assumption that postgraduates "ought" to know what they are doing. Responsible staff must be able to demonstrate that they have exercised an effective supervisory role. This role will be exercised within a context of School/Unit procedures, systems of work and monitoring arrangements. Initial training of new postgraduate students should include the University Health and Safety Policy, University Ethics Research Guidelines, School/Unit Safety Regulations and, in particular, hazards and risks associated with their specific projects.

Postgraduate/Project Students: Where students projects are concerned, effective or adequate supervision does not necessarily (or even usually) mean constant attendance. Where attendance is necessary, this should be carried out by the supervisor or their authorised nominee. This authorised nominee should be a suitably qualified member of academic staff. There are indeed no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes adequate supervision but there are fundamental elements upon which supervisors must satisfy themselves. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that:

(1) the project is subject to a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. This should take into account:
  • the experience of the student;
  • compliance with the existing School/Unit procedures;
  • compliance with any relevant University of St. Andrews Health and Safety Rules;
  • compliance with national legislation, for example, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, COSHH Regulations, Manual Handling Regulations, etc.;
  • particular precautions which the supervisor deems necessary to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of the student (and others who may be affected by the work;
(2) it is made clear to the student that substantial changes (there should be a discussion with the student on what amounts to a "substantial" change at the beginning of their project) must not go ahead without the supervisor's knowledge;

(3) the students realise they have legal responsibilities not to endanger themselves or others by their acts or omissions;

(4) the students have the appropriate information, instruction and training they need to work safely;

(5) where necessary, formal arrangements must take place within the School/Unit so that a temporary alternative supervisor is provided during absence of the regular supervisor;

(6) matters such as fieldwork and placement are also given due consideration and, if necessary, included in their risk assessment;

(7) in all but the most elementary circumstances, the risk assessment should be in writing. The standard University of St. Andrews risk assessment form can be used for this purpose;

N.B. The risk assessment should give a description of the control measures, e.g., administrative,engineering, personal protective equipment, etc. which need to be implemented to prevent the particular risk identified being realised;

(8) all postgraduate student risk assessments should be reviewed at least annually or sooner if the work is substantially changed.

(9) all undergraduate, taught and research postgraduate students are given adequate training on the University ethical review policies when their research will involve living human participants, living tissues and human samples and where the research may affect the welfare and wellbeing of others. 

(10) all undergraduate, taught and research postgraduate students are given adequate training on the University ethical review policies when their research will involve living animals.

Safety of undergraduates

Undergraduates should be assumed to be initially untrained in all matters of health and safety. Academic staff, therefore, have a duty to instruct students, as far as is reasonbly practicable, in all matters necessary to ensure their health and safety while working in University premises, on fieldwork exercises and during their studies outwith the University, for example, placements. It may be that non-academic staff, who are suitably trained in the appropriate techniques have a role to play in the supervision of undergraduate students. However, the legal responsibility for the overall supervision of undergraduate students rests with the particular academic member of staff with responsibility for the students' studies. Potentially hazardous equipment should not be used by undergraduates unless adequate protective devices are in operation. Where such safeguards are not reasonably practicable, adequate specific training must be given before the operation of such equipment is allowed (all such work must be adequately supervised).

No substances shall be introduced into practical work for undergraduates unless the hazards associated with it have been assessed. Where reliable information is not available the substances should be regarded as potentially dangerous and treated with appropriate precautions. Written instructions to undergraduates in their practical work must draw attention to the risk of using hazardous substances and equipment and the precautions which must be taken.

Guidance documents

Managing Health and Safety Aspects of Research in Higher and Further Education (ESAC) 2000

University Teaching and Research Ethics Committee


Environmental Health and Safety Services contact details

University of St Andrews
Bute Building Queens Terrace
St Andrews
KY16 9TS
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462750
Fax:44 (0)1334 462747