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In the news 7 August 2020

7 August 2020

"Towns and cities will fail if universities do"

UCU's groundbreaking work looking at the impact universities have on local jobs and economies continued to pick up coverage this week as regional papers highlighted the how their universities are such an integral and positive force in the local community.

The front page of the Yorkshire Post yesterday warned that "towns and cities will fail if universities do". The paper described Leeds' local institutions as "pillars of our society" and highlighted the 10,000 jobs they support and the £1bn they pumped into the local economy last year.

The analysis, by Hatch Regeneris for UCU, shows universities are often among the largest local employers in the UK and have a huge impact on local economies. For example, in the North East more people are directly employed in higher education (20,000) than in car manufacturing (9,000).

Coverage across the country also highlighted the important boost universities provide for the local economy through goods and services produced or purchased by universities through their supply chains and the money spent by employees and students.


Safety first? Experts warn that student and staff welfare must be number one priority

The Guardian reported on warnings this week that promising young people they can return to campuses this autumn means universities are putting their financial survival in the pandemic above the welfare of students, staff and local communities.

The paper said that although almost all institutions are offering some face-to-face learning, it will be a very different university experience, with visitors and parties likely to be banned in many halls of residence. However, Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford said the current position will be very difficult to manage and that students will want to be together and likely bend the rules.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Before universities can reopen safely we need to see much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing, comprehensive testing, university-wide strategies based on risk assessments and the protection of those most vulnerable to Covid-19.'

Elsewhere iNews reported today that the Department for Education has set up a new scientific advisory committee to prepare for the reopening of universities and colleges, over fears students could spread Covid-19 infections across the country.


Covid safety breaches at University of Oxford put October reopening plans at risk

The University of Oxford was accused of flouting government guidelines on reopening universities on Monday. UCU wrote to the university last month formally requesting that the university share risk assessments about staff safety after trying to raise the issue on multiple occasions with the university.

The university responded saying it was not practical or useful to share all risk assessments, despite previously claiming that staff and student health was its top priority. An agreement between universities and unions on working through the pandemic says that universities must consult with trade unions on staff health and safety, and about how the institution will manage risks from Covid-19 when re-opening.

Speaking to the Oxford Mail, Jo Grady said: 'It is shocking to see the University of Oxford flouting health and safety guidelines in the middle of this pandemic, whilst claiming the health of staff and students is its highest priority. The university needs to work with us to ensure it can safely reopen in October, rather than putting the safety of staff and students at risk.'


UCU warns against "premature cuts" as Heriot-Watt orders languages review

UCU warned against "premature cuts" this week as Heriot-Watt University said it was reviewing the future of its entire foreign languages department as it looks to make savings. The Times said that Heriot-Watt was widely seen as Scotland's centre of excellence for translation studies, but has commissioned an external review into French, German, Spanish and Chinese classes.

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said: 'Premature cuts are in nobody's interests and universities need to work with us to explore ways to protect jobs and students' education. It is particularly concerning to see the university reviewing its languages provision given the need for Scotland to be even more outward-facing to the world with Brexit on the horizon.'


Think-tank's claims that academic freedom is under attack rubbished

A report from the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange this week warned that academic freedom in universities was under threat. They said the results of its survey revealed a "reservoir of support for academic freedom among staff at British universities". While some newspapers lapped up an obvious attack, a more detailed look at the report revealed its failings and likely falsehoods.

Richard Adams from the Guardian highlighted how the findings came from a survey of 820 academics, of whom 41% were retired with an average age of 70 and may not have even worked in UK universities. Jo Grady told the paper that the recommendations were not credible and the main concern staff had was not with think-tank-inspired bogeymen, but with the current government's wish to police what can and cannot be taught at university.

Jonathan Portes's acerbic critique of the report said the fact the authors were gullible or lazy enough to include examples of academic freedom being under attack that looked like deliberate jokes spoke volumes about its lack of credibility. He cited the example where a member of staff was apparently removed from a programme because they failed to show sufficient deference to a photo of Jeremy Corbyn on a manager's desk.


Last updated: 7 August 2020