In the news 11 September 2020

11 September 2020

Government scientific guidance backs UCU call to keep learning online

At the start of the weekend, last Friday at 5pm, the government's scientific advisors SAGE released guidance setting out the significant risks of widely reopening university campuses. It came a week after UCU had said that it was not a good idea to move over a million students across the country during a pandemic.  

Speaking to the Evening standard and the Guardian, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'This report is sobering reading and brings the dangers associated with reopening university campuses into sharp focus. It exposes how wrong it was to try and pretend it would be almost business as usual. The worry now is how ill-prepared the Government and universities appear to be.'

Jo told The Sunday Times that universities need "regular universal testing" on campuses and told Times Higher that the SAGE report added further weight to the union's call for teaching to remain online until Christmas.


UCU slams government attempts to pre-emptively blame students for any second wave

On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested students could be at fault for any Covid surge. UCU said instead of blaming students, ministers needed to take control of the public health risks associated with a mass return to university campuses.

Speaking to The Times, Jo said: 'Students have been told to move, live, study and socialise together. It is totally unacceptable for Matt Hancock to try to suggest that they will be at fault for any second wave'.

Jo said that we needed "a serious response from universities and the Westminster government" and that guidance promised by ministers on how universities operate safely in the pandemic had to address these concerns.


Prime Minister says students won't be allowed to return home in event of Covid outbreak

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister introduced new Covid restrictions before ministers had the chance to issue the long-awaited guidance. During the press conference to announce the change, he said the guidance for English universities would be released "today" and that university campuses must reopen, but students would be forced to stay there in the event of a Covid outbreak. UCU called the plan "ridiculously irresponsible". Speaking to The Telegraph, Jo said: 'The Prime Minister cannot in good conscience tell students to go back to university when he knows more outbreaks are likely and that would result in them being locked down hundreds of miles from home'.

Data shared at the briefing showed that the infection rate among 17-21 year olds was at 50 in 100,000 and increasing sharply. Countries that have infections greater than 20 in 100,000 are removed from the safe travel list and require those who return to quarantine.



Delayed guidance attacked as "confusing, expensive and at times silly"

The guidance finally arrived early the next morning. It included advice on better ventilation that bizarrely suggested teaching outside or opening doors and windows to deal with the issue. In England. In the winter months.

Equally confusing was the suggestion that students could live together in halls in households larger than six, but not socialise in groups greater than six. Prompting some to ask if a group of seven students could live together, why could they not eat together.

The guidance also said any costs had to be met from existing university budgets, prompting UCU to describe it as "confusing, expensive and at times silly".  

Speaking to the Guardian , Jo Grady picked up on the high levels on infection among young people and said: 'Any country with an infection rate anywhere near that of our young people would be removed from the safe travel list. We cannot see why the government is insisting young people move around the country and engage in unnecessary face-to-face interactions.'

Speaking to the BBC, she made clear how absurd and unnecessary UCU thought plans for teaching outdoor in the winter was: 'We cannot see why the government is insisting young people move around the country and engage in unnecessary face-to-face interactions. Moving learning online would remove the need for universities to consider teaching outside or opening doors and windows in the winter months as the guidance suggests.'


College teachers don't feel safe returning to work

Two-thirds of teaching staff do not feel safe returning to college, warned a survey in Tes on Monday.

The survey found that over half of the support staff who responded did not feel safe to return to work, but that figure dropped to one in four for respondents who were managers.

UCU head of further education Andrew Harden said: 'The health of staff, students and their families has to remain the number one priority and colleges should not fully reopen until it is safe to do so. Colleges have to recognise the very real fear their staff have about a return to work.

'Colleges should be working with students and staff to make sure they have full confidence in health and safety risk assessments institutions have undertaken. Any member of staff who is worried about their return to work should contact UCU.'


UCU has no confidence in Universities Superannuation Scheme valuation

On Monday, UCU said it had no confidence in the "needlessly cautious" approach taken by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) in its valuation of the pension scheme. The union said it was disappointed that USS had cherry-picked recommendations from a Joint Expert Panel (JEP), set up by UCU and Universities UK following unprecedented levels of strike action over detrimental changes to USS in 2018. The union urged universities to use their leverage to make USS reconsider its approach and to look again at the work of the JEP. Speaking to University Business, Pensions Age and Professional Pensions, UCU head of higher education Paul Bridge said: 'We have no confidence in the needlessly cautious methodology applied by USS. We are also disappointed USS has cherry-picked from the recommendations made by the Joint Expert Panel. UCU members are well informed and expect to see better evidence behind the judgements USS has made.

'We want USS to take account of the strong long-term outlook for the scheme. Members are leaving the scheme because of its high cost - calling for unnecessarily large reductions in benefits and increased member contributions is not the way forward. Universities need to start demanding more from USS and push back against this approach.'



Last updated: 11 September 2020