Closures of University buildings due to RAAC – what you need to know

7th September 2023

Most universities are preparing for freshers’ week and the start of the academic year but RAAC surveys have resulted in at least four universities in Scotland taking precautions and closing buildings to ensure staff and student safety. However, there is concern that many more could be forced to shut facilities as further assessments are made of the risks.

What is RAAC?

Lightweight reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) was commonly used as a building material for flat roofing and floors and walls from the 1960s to the 1990s. It is an aerated form of concrete which was quicker to produce and easier to install than standard concrete. However, it is susceptible to structural failure when exposed to moisture. The Health and Safety Executive says RAAC is “now life-expired”, and is “liable to collapse with little or no notice”.

What will this mean for students?

If alternative teaching space within existing buildings cannot be found quickly, some universities may have to request that students remain at home or in halls of residence. In a worst-case scenario, this might involve returning to 2020-2021 lockdown-type provisions such as completing lectures or tutorials online. In this way, universities will be complying with their contractual obligations to provide education services and exercise reasonable care and skill.

However, as always, careful thought needs to be given to student wellbeing and how to provide education to those students that require additional support such as those with disabilities. As closure of facilities due to RAAC is not accompanied by any government restrictions over social distancing, it may be possible for universities to cater for disabled students by providing in-person access to teaching or support staff at alternative locations. Ensuring that disabled students are treated no less favourably as a result of their disability will be critical to help prevent future discrimination claims arising from any adapted teaching arrangements.

Activities including freshers’ week or field trips should still be able to go ahead, albeit there may need to be alternative venues if the planned buildings are closed. Risk assessments should reflect on whether RAAC is a risk going forwards, for example for future field trips.

What will this mean for university contracts?

Universities may wish to check the terms of their supplier contracts, for example cleaning or catering, to determine if they address the parties’ obligations during a period of closure (as part of a so-called “force majeure” clause). If not, there may need to be a careful negotiation over how the contract obligations can be put on hold or amended (or, in an extreme case, whether termination provisions are triggered).

Given the passage of time since RAAC was installed, it is unlikely to be possible to bring a successful claim against any third party in relation to the design/installation of RAAC. However, universities will need to think carefully about how they plan and procure any remedial works to remove and replace unsafe RAAC and integrate this, as well as asbestos management as part of their Planned, Prevention, Maintenance and building management plan. Interim mitigation measures, such as the installation of props, may also need to be considered.

What will this mean for staff?

Lecturing and teaching staff may find themselves being asked to work from alternative teaching spaces within buildings that do not have RAAC, or to return to remote ways of working.

Universities will need to check that any revised arrangements fall within their existing contracts of employment and policies and procedures, and there may need to be consultation with staff and trade unions about any proposed changes, especially if these are significant or may be long-lasting.

How can we help?

We have significant experience of advising on the implications of RAAC and how to manage risks associated with this. We can also assist universities to navigate the practical duty of care and various legal issues that will arise from any closures.

Please contact either Trish D’Souza of our Education team, Kate Howell in our Construction team or Matthew Smith in our Employment team.

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