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'Move universities online now': UCU's demand to PM

28 September 2020

UCU has written to prime minster Boris Johnson* to urge him to make online learning universities' default position, protect students' education and stop any further damage to community health.

The union accuses universities of hiding behind government guidance and calls for the prime minister to adopt a clear policy that the majority of teaching should be online. UCU also calls for students to be allowed to return home if they wish without fear of financial penalty for leaving student accommodation.

On Friday evening, Manchester Metropolitan University locked down around 1,700 students  in halls of residence. Despite this, the university said it was only moving learning online for foundation year students and first years.

Yesterday Professor Mark Woodhouse, from the government's pandemic modelling group, said that the current crisis was not only 'entirely predictable', but that modelling showed halls of residences and in-person teaching were areas of risk.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Given the rapidly changing situation and the increasing Covid outbreaks, now is the time for swift action and to move the majority of universities' work online. We are not prepared to take chances with the health and safety of students, staff or local communities.

'Manchester Metropolitan University shifting teaching online only for foundation and first year students, for example, exposes the absurdity of trying to continue with blended learning. There is no point encouraging students to come to university to self-isolate for a fortnight and doing so now looks even more like a cynical effort to extract accommodation fees and then worry about what to do.

'We cannot have students forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, or staff forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home. Students must be allowed to safely return home if they wish to and without fear of financial penalty for leaving their student accommodation.

'We now understand that pandemic modelling identified halls and in-person teaching as areas of risk, yet the government insisted universities continued to welcome students . We want the prime minster to explain why that modelling was ignored.

'We believe a summer spent selling a university experience to prospective students that couldn't be delivered would have been better spent following the science and preparing properly for this inevitable crisis.'


*Full letter

Dear Prime Minister

Safety on campuses - minimising in person teaching

I am writing from the University and College Union to urge you strengthen and clarify the current guidance for the safe return to university campus, and to ensure Covid-19 does not threaten to derail our students' education and further damage the health of our communities.

Given the rapidly changing situation and the growing prevalence of Covid-19 across the country, and with the number of outbreaks on university campuses even at this early stage of the new academic year, now is the time for swift action and to ensure online teaching becomes the norm.

As you will be aware, UCU has been calling for some time for all higher education activity that can feasibly be undertaken remotely to be done so, and we have set out this position in the discussions with your colleague, universities minister Michelle Donelan.

We are only a week or two into the new academic year, and we already have Covid-19 outbreaks at institutions in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, and these are unlikely to be the last examples.

We know that the virus spreads exponentially indoors and that it is most prevalent amongst 17-21 year-olds. We have also seen the terrible impact that the virus has had already in this country, and my union is not prepared to take chances with health of students, our members and the communities they serve. It is clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we are in this precarious position with the virus.

However, what we are seeing on the ground is university employers hiding behind the government's current sectoral guidance, with all the ambiguities associated with the term "blended learning".

Professor Mark Woodhouse, from your government's own pandemic modelling group, said yesterday that the current situation was not only entirely predictable, but that modelling showed halls of residences and in-person teaching were areas of risk.

Whilst other sectors are being encouraged by the government to work from home to help control the spread of the virus, universities are requiring staff to travel across their local regions to work on-site and in-person with any number of students.

Considering the known risks associated with in-person teaching and students living in close quarters, why did the government not insist on minimising in-person teaching and students travelling to universities?

We have concerns that universities are taking this stubborn position because they depend on rents from student accommodation - and because your own government refuses to step in and underwrite universities' lost income for the duration of the pandemic to ensure they are not negatively impacted and jobs are not lost.

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

I recognise the need to keep universities open, and your commitment to this, but I am urging you to join us in calling for all institutions to follow the example of providers such as Birkbeck London, Liverpool John Moores and Liverpool Hope, and move away from the lecture hall and to high quality online teaching as a way to protect staff and students.

Campus life cannot currently be safe with in-person teaching. Those currently working and studying in our universities need a national strategy that accepts this, moves teaching online for the duration of this term, and ensures students can safely return home where possible.

Action is needed now to protect the safety of students, staff and the wider community at this pivotal moment in the epidemic and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

Jo Grady

General secretary

Last updated: 28 September 2020