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Impacts of student clashes on Crisis Management Planning at Australian universities

Rising political tensions in Hong Kong are impacting organisations around the world, with Australian universities reporting escalating violent clashes between pro-Hong Kong and pro-China students.

The clashes began with two students. Both from different backgrounds. Both attending the University of Queensland. Both were new to activism and met over their outrage with the current situations in Hong Kong and China. One student posted a notice of the pro-Hong Kong rally on Facebook. The online event quickly took on a life of its own with pro-China students posting aggressive messages in response.

The clashes that started at the University of Queensland soon spread into major universities across Australia. Tensions have also seen pro-democracy “Lennon Walls” – named after a Cold War-era wall in the Czech Republic where dissidents wrote messages inspired by the Beatles singer John Lennon – torn down at several campuses including the University of Queensland (UQ), the University of NSW (UNSW), the University of Sydney (USYD) and the Australian National University (ANU) over the last few weeks.

An ANU spokesman says “ANU expects all students to respect the university’s property – including dedicated spaces for students to post materials,” adding “the university supports everyone within the wider Australian community possessing and enjoying the rights to free expression that are protected by the law and within defined limits.”

Similarly, the University of Sydney said it supported students expressing their political views respectfully. “We do not condone the recent removal of a ‘Lennon Wall’ on our campus and have made clear that displays set up by our students are welcome and should be respected,” a spokeswoman said.

As a result, the ANU and the University of Sydney took steps and placed security guards to protect these walls from pro-China students, demonstrating a value position from the University leadership to encourage freedom of speech and expression within their grounds.

RiskLogic believes this is an event requiring the activation of a response team. Simon Petie – QLD Regional Manager at RiskLogic – says: “We recognise that, in line with University procedures, the events currently unfolding are outside of Business as Usual processes and therefore require additional resources and management effort to ensure they are assessed and resolved appropriately.” In the process of activating a response team and managing an event of this level, there are a number of factors a University needs to focus on:

  • Ensuring that you are getting the right people in the room. Are the people on your Response Team the best trained and prepared people to handle this situation and all possible outcomes?
  • Having the appropriate triggers and definitions for escalation, and ensuring that these can be met by a potential impact not just in response to an event.
  • Forecasting impacts across the University and not becoming fixated on the specific event. Looking into the longer term planning around the resolution of the event to get your University back to Business as Usual and ensuring these plans encompass all impacted areas of the University.
  • Reviewing procedures in preparation for any potential escalation of the event.
  • Confirming the University’s priorities, objectives and your values and how these factors should impact on the position your organisation takes during the event.
  • Establishing and maintaining clear communication lines, strategies and procedures so that all key stakeholders are well informed throughout the duration of the event.

As these tensions do not look like they’ll be going away any time soon, Australian Universities need to see this as an opportunity to review their crisis and incident management planning. It is important to note that in the age of social media, clashes begin online long before spilling into the real world. The tertiary sector need to monitor online sentiments in order to pre-empt an escalation of potential crisis events. Universities should also consider the benefits of multi-agency scenario exercises which are designed to build capability and response preparedness within crisis teams.

For a review of your crisis management plan or incident management plan, start a discussion with our experienced consultants today.

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