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MPs call on University of Leeds to move learning online

1 October 2020

A group of MPs from across Leeds have called on the University of Leeds to move teaching online in an effort to stem the developing Covid crisis at universities.

In a joint letter* to Leeds vice-chancellor Professor Simone Buitendijk, five local MPs (Hilary Benn, Richard Burgon, Fabian Hamilton, Rachel Reeves and Alex Sobel) said the university must be move online where possible to minimise the risks to staff, students and the wider community.

In the letter, which comes as the university confirmed cases of Covid-19 on campus, the MPs say the move would dramatically reduce the number people on campus and may encourage students to study their courses from home, rather than in their university accommodation where the risk of infection is elevated.

Following pressure from staff unions the university yesterday agreed to increased transparency around confirmed cases of Covid-19 and to publish figures on a weekly basis, something the MPs' letter also called for.

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

Earlier this week 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.

University of Leeds UCU branch president Ben Plumpton said: 'With increased rates of Covid nationally and locally, the university must limit the amount of activity on campus in order to reduce the risk to everyone. The health of staff, students and the wider community is too important to gamble with. This cannot be business as usual.'


*Full letter

Dear Vice Chancellor

Re: Online Lessons during Covid-19

We are writing as Leeds MPs to urge you to do everything in your power to promote online teaching and a safe campus while our city is subject to local restrictions.

Whilst we understand that face to face teaching would be preferable in normal circumstance and accept that there will be inevitable difficulties to moving online, this must be measured against the seriousness of the current situation the city finds itself in and the resultant danger that COVID-19 poses to your staff, students and the wider community.

We know that your position is subject to change due to the fast pace of the current situation our city finds itself in and understand that there are examples where teaching could not be moved online. We also note the statement you made to your staff- "Where it is safe, practicable, and pedagogically advantageous or necessary, teaching should be delivered face-to-face, rather than online. However, in instances where those criteria cannot be met, we would recommend that you move your teaching online."

Whilst this statement is a welcome step in the right direction, we believe a change of emphasis is important. Encouraging more lessons to be held online. Stating clearly that lessons should all be moved online, unless there is no possible way of doing so, would dramatically decrease the number of staff and students needed on campus and may even encourage students to study their courses from home rather than in their university accommodations where the risk of infection is elevated. Minimal face to face teaching, together with minimal support staff on campus, would reduce the risks to everyone - students, teaching staff, researchers, and essential campus staff.

We also ask that you commit to the highest standard of transparency on the numbers of Covid-19 cases among the student and staff population. This should be accurately shared in a similar manner to the 'dashboard' approach employed in many US universities.

We would also be grateful if you could let us know how you will be supporting students in dealing with consequences of all this, including for their mental health as well as any financial implications.

We understand the serious difficulties that the pandemic has caused, and continues to cause, to our universities. We know that this has dramatically impacted the University of Leeds financially and in its ability to deliver the quality of education for which it is renowned. However, at this crucial moment we must ensure that decisions are made in interests of public health. In doing so, we can hope for a return to our lives as normal as quickly as possible.

We would encourage the University of Leeds to show leadership in this very difficult situation enfolding across the university sector.

Yours sincerely,

Hilary Benn MP
Richard Burgon MP

Fabian Hamilton MP
Rachel Reeves MP
Alex Sobel MP

Last updated: 1 October 2020