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'Scottish universities must stop hiding behind unclear government guidance'

23 September 2020

UCU has today written* to the Scottish government calling for urgent leadership to address Covid-19 outbreaks on university campuses, and to put the health and safety of students and staff first.

The union accuses universities of hiding behind the Scottish government's guidance for universities and calls for stronger guidance that clarifies that remote and online working for universities should be the default position, and that all activity that can be done remotely should be done so.

In the first few weeks of term there have already been outbreaks on university campuses in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews. UCU said it was deeply concerned about the health and safety of students, staff and local communities, given the virus was spreading so rapidly, especially among young people.

UCU's Scotland official Mary Senior said: 'We are not prepared to take chances with the health and safety of students, staff or local communities when it comes to Covid-19.  We are clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we as a nation are in this precarious position with the virus.

'The Scottish government has to issue stronger guidance that clarifies that all learning that can be done remotely should be. Universities are hiding behind ambiguities in the current guidance and the government must insist they fall in line with all other workplaces and move online.'

 

*Text of letter sent to Richard Lochhead MSP, Minister for further education, higher education and science:

Dear Minister,

Safe returns to campus - safety of staff and students

Given the rapidly changing situation with the growing prevalence of Covid-19 in our communities, and with the number of outbreaks of Covid-19 cases in university campuses at this early stage of the new academic year, I need to urgently follow up my correspondence of 17 September with the Scottish Government, to urge you to strengthen and clarify the guidance for safe returns to campus.

UCU has been outlining for some considerable time that we believe that all higher education activity that can feasibly be undertaken remotely should be done so, and we have set out this position in the discussions with you, with your officials, with employers and in my recent correspondence to the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney MSP.    We are only a week or two into the new academic year, and we already have Covid-19 outbreaks - mainly connected with student accommodation - in Aberdeen, Abertay, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh Napier and St Andrews universities.    We know that the virus spreads exponentially indoors, we know that the virus is most prevalent amongst 17-21 year-olds, and that asymptomatic spreading is occurring.   We have also seen the terrible impact that the virus has had already in this country, with the UK as a whole seeing over forty thousand deaths.  The students now self-isolating in St Andrews, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow are likely to have been involved in face to face activity on campus already.  Our union is not prepared to take chances with health of students and our members when it comes to Covid-19.  We are clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we as a nation are in this precarious position with the virus.

However, what we are seeing right now is university employers hiding behind the Scottish Government's university sectoral guidance, with all the ambiguities associated with the term "blended learning", and the dubiety on the Scottish Government's clear message to the general public that they should work from home where they can, but the possibility that universities direct their staff to come to the workplace to deliver on-site face to face teaching to up to 30 or even 50 students.  It is the case that employers and line managers in universities are requiring staff to deliver on-site, face to face work.

Our union is urging greater leadership from the Scottish Government on this matter, and clearer direction from you that activity that can be done online should be done online for the time being.  Taking this more sensitive and cautious approach will help address the severe anxieties of staff in the sector, will reduce face to face interaction between students, and could limit the spread of the virus.   

Your leadership on this matter could also ease industrial tensions in the sector.  UCU has already lodged two "failure to agree" notices (a precursor to moving to full dispute) with two institutions, and these difficulties are replicated across the sector.

No doubt there will be further discussions on safe returns at next week's Ministerial Leadership Group, and the matter will be once again raised in the regular STUC meeting with the Minister for Fair Work, Jamie Hepburn MSP.  Our union needs urgent action from the Scottish Government on this matter to protect the safety of students and staff at this pivotal moment in the epidemic.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Senior
Scotland Official

 

 

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