Polytech Faces Hardest Test Yet

TEU says “any model of drug testing used is invasive on people”

The Otago Polytechnic is consulting on a proposal to implement “just cause” drug testing for students in high-risk courses.

Consultation occurred between staff at the Otago Polytechnic and the Otago Polytechnic Students’ Association (OPSA) on Monday 18 May. Leslie Scoullar, student support advisor and advocate, said the meeting included Andy Westgate, Otago Polytechnic’s health and safety manager, “outlining the basic policy to the students”. Westgate then answered any questions students had. 

Although the polytechnic initially considered random drug tests, Director of Organisational Development Matt Carter said what they are looking at is “just cause”. This means that if an individual is believed to be “under illicit substances, then testing could follow”. 

Carter assured those at the meeting that drug testing would “not [be] random … you have to have a reason to suspect there is an issue”.

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) President Sandra Grey has publicly condemned the idea since it was announced. Grey said although the TEU wants a “safe working and learning environment,” there is “no need to move to extremes in these approaches”.

Another key issue is deciding where to draw the line on which courses are deemed to be sufficiently “high risk” to justify drug testing. Carter said “part of the consultation is about who it would apply to”.

“At this stage,” he said, “we’re saying that it would apply to those [courses] where it was high risk, so machinery or adventure where they are out on the field in high-risk environments … because a lot of our programmes are very hands on, that actually applies to quite a lot of our programmes.”

Grey said there is no “need to test people in areas where there are no health and safety issues”. She said the TEU “would want to see this limited to areas where there is a justifiable health and safety risk”.

Grey says “respect for human rights” and protection of the “rights to privacy” need to be taken into account. The polytechnic needs to “balance that against the actual task being completed”. Grey said “any model of drug testing used is invasive on people”.

When asked what drugs they are going to test for, Scouller said “everything” will be under scrutiny if the policy is passed.

The consequences for a student being caught under the influence of illicit substances will be health-based, rather than involving severe penalties. “It has got to be a supportive situation,” said Carter. “Of course, if you are operating heavy machinery then you need to stand down from doing that and we would offer rehabilitation assistance.” 

Carter said there will always be a “case-by-case basis” approach. In certain circumstances, “it may be considered as a student discipline issue, and maybe a warning”. He said the “main message” he wants to get across is that the move is “about ensuring the safety of our students”.

“In an applied learning situation … there are of course high risks, and this is also about role modelling what many industries now expect once you get into the workforce.”

This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2015.
Posted 10:52am Sunday 24th May 2015 by Joe Higham.