In the news 4 September 2020

4 September 2020

Universities must not become the care homes of a Covid second wave

This weekend, UCU warned that the mass migration of over a million students at the start of the new academic year risked causing a major health crisis. The union said universities had to move teaching and learning online and called for the government to step in and underwrite any lost funding.  

The story broke on the front page of the Observer on Saturday evening.  UCU general secretary Jo Grady then told Sky News at 10 that allowing universities to reopen could lead to them to becoming the care homes of a Covid second wave.

On Sunday, Jo spoke to BBC Breakfast, BBC News, BBC 5 Live, Channel 4 News, ITV News, LBC, Sky News and Times Radio, and said students moving across the UK risked exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes.

The Times reported that UCU's call came after Independent Sage recommended that online learning should become universities' default position. Jo told the Independent that the risk of a second wave had been increased because the government's exam results fiasco meant more students were expected on campus.

Speaking to the New York Times and Times Higher, Jo said: 'It is time for the government to finally take some decisive and responsible action in this crisis and tell universities to abandon plans for face-to-face teaching.'

Jo also called for the government to provide more financial support. She said: 'The limited, piecemeal funding measures announced by the government so far are nothing compared with the security and the stimulus that would be provided by a comprehensive funding guarantee. Students will also need financial support to ensure that they can participate fully in online learning.'


New guidance on health and safety on campus

As well as calling for online teaching to be the default position of universities, UCU issued new guidance where face-to-face teaching could not be avoided. Wonkhe reported that the guidance called for face coverings to be worn, social distancing, greater testing on campus and better cleaning procedures.

On Tuesday, the Scottish government issued its own updated advice on how to reopen campuses safely and the University of St Andrews announced it was moving the majority of its teaching online for the first seven weeks of the new term.

UCU Scotland's official Mary Senior said: 'It is good to see the government and employers acknowledging that campus life won't be back to normal this year. It is vital that all universities follow the cautious, risk-assessed approach to the new academic year, but we're clear that remote learning and working has to be the default position.'

Speaking to the BBC, Mary criticised threats to sanction students contained in the guidance. She said: 'The rules need to be adhered to, but heavy handed threats should not be meted out to students and staff at a time which is uncertain and worrying for many'.

On Tuesday evening Jo Grady held a webinar with UCU president-elect Janet Farrar, Professor Ann Phoenix and Professor Elizabeth Stokoe from Independent SAGE, and NUS president Larissa Kennedy to discuss how universities could reopen safely.


US colleges and universities reopening a "disaster"

On Tuesday, a British Medical Journal (BMJ) editorial called the national reopening of US colleges and universities a "disaster", after a third of institutions fully reopened in August without a national Covid control plan, and with no guidelines on how to reopen safely. The BMJ said that many large university campuses had had to shut down within weeks of reopening due to Covid outbreaks. While, the Chronicle analysed Covid numbers in areas where college campuses had reopened and found that the number of cases shot up within 12 days of students returning.

Times Higher reported that US colleges and universities may have reopened campuses in the face of health concerns to satisfy corporate funders. It said one commercial partner had written to two public universities warning them against taking actions that might limit student occupancy in their dormitories. Private higher education consultant Eric Stollers said that, after tuition fees, housing revenue appeared to be the most important financial factor behind campuses reopening.


Fewer than half of colleges paid staff in full during lockdown

Yesterday, Tes reported that fewer than half of colleges paid all their casual staff either in full or in full for the hours of work that had been planned during lockdown.

A freedom of information request revealed that around 47% of colleges either paid staff "in full", or "in full for the hours they had originally planned" during lockdown. However, 7% of colleges did not pay casual or zero-hour contract staff at all. At a small number of institutions, staff were paid "in part", while at 16% of colleges, pay varied depending on role.

UCU research from last year found that over half (56%) of staff working on insecure contracts in further, adult and prison education struggled to pay the bills. At the start of lockdown the union called for staff on casual contracts in colleges to receive guarantees that they would not lose money in the event of cancelled classes caused by the pandemic.

Jo Grady said it was unfair for casualised staff to be treated differently during lockdown and called for colleges to end the "injustice of casualised work". She said: 'It cannot be fair that casualised staff were treated differently according to the college that employed them, with some staff receiving nothing from their employer throughout lockdown.'

Last updated: 4 September 2020