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In the news 2 October 2020

2 October 2020

Manchester Metropolitan locked down 1,700 students on Friday night

Last Friday night, Manchester Metropolitan University told around 1,700 students to self-isolate for a fortnight with immediate effect after Covid outbreaks in halls of residence. The news broke just after 7pm as UCU general secretary Jo Grady was on Channel 4 News warning that without urgent action, it would only be a matter of weeks before all teaching was online due to staff being in contact with people who have Covid or have it themselves.

Jo told the BBC that the Manchester incident was "the latest catastrophe in a week where wholly predictable - and predicted - Covid outbreaks had caused havoc on campuses across the UK". She urged university leaders to drop face-to-face classes until the government improves the test-and-trace system.

Speaking to Sky News, Jo said: 'We warned last month of the problems with moving thousands of students across the country and the time has come for urgent action from ministers and universities to protect staff and students. Manchester Metropolitan University shifting teaching online only for foundation and first-year students exposes the total absurdity of the current position of trying to continue with blended learning.'

Over the weekend, university staff said they had nothing but sympathy for the students in lockdown. In a statement, the local UCU branch said it had raised concerns that a return to campus would result the chaos now unfolding in the university's halls of residence and that the union's warnings over health and safety were not listened to.


Calls for Man Met vice-chancellor to resign as reports come in of illegal guidance to students at University of Manchester

Following an emergency branch meeting yesterday, the local branch UCU has now called for Manchester Metropolitan University vice-chancellor Professor Malcolm Press to resign and said they will write to the Board of Governors demanding he goes if he refuses to walk.

UCU regional official Martyn Moss told the Manchester Evening News that "There was a long and serious charge sheet against the vice-chancellor and he should now do the honourable thing and resign. This morning Professor Press issued a video in which he described the past seven days as "challenging".

Meanwhile the University of Manchester also started making the headlines for the wrong reasons. Over 200 staff and students have tested Covid positive and the Today programme said it had seen guidance where students were encouraged to break the law and their isolation to go out and get food or do washing. Jo Grady told Today that the situation was an "absolute mess" and "completely preventable".


UCU leads charge for urgent action in Covid crisis

The weekend kicked off with UCU's call for universities to move online on the front page of the i and the Guardian. The Guardian coverage featured an interview with Jo Grady where she said in-person teaching had to be stopped until the government fixed its test-and-tracing problems.

The paper also ran a piece saying universities were bullying the most precarious and poorly paid staff to come in and continue teaching. UCU president Vicky Blake said: 'Staff are getting in touch with me at their wits' end. It's a horrible thing to be told people are terrified.'

Jo did an extraordinary media round speaking to the BBC, ITV and Sky News on numerous occasions.

Asked by Radio 4's PM programme if this meant the end of the student experience, she pointed out that being imprisoned in a hall of residence in Manchester or under more severe restrictions in Scotland then everyone else was no kind of student experience.

On Monday morning Jo appeared on This Morning with a student in lockdown from Manchester and their parents. She said the self-isolating students in Manchester were not being tested and without a system to track and trace people it was unclear how similar issues could be avoided elsewhere.


Ministers attacked for failing to react to developing crisis

Ministers and university leaders were notable by their absence over the weekend. UCU wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday to urge him to make online learning universities' default position, protect students' education and stop any further damage to community health.

UCU's letter noted that one person who did appear on TV over the weekend was Professor Mark Woodhouse, from the government's pandemic modelling group. He told the BBC's Andrew Marr show that the current situation was not only entirely predictable, but that modelling showed halls of residences and in-person teaching were areas of risk.

On Monday evening, Labour labelled hapless education secretary Gavin Williamson "the invisible man", which prompted him to promise a Commons statement on the crisis on Tuesday.


Gavin Williamson "clearly wrong" to say universities are well prepared for Covid crisis

To say Gavin Williamson's appearance in the House of Commons went badly would be an understatement. UCU said he was "clearly wrong" to tell the Commons that universities are well prepared to deal with the global pandemic.

Speaking to the Times, Jo Grady said: 'The absence of ministers in recent days to offer any support to staff and students has been unacceptable and a shirking of their most basic responsibilities. We are disappointed that instead of taking responsibility, the education secretary today followed his A-level playbook and sought to associate others with his failings. He is the minister in charge of education and needs to start taking responsibility.'

Following his appearance, Wonkhe were quick to highlight a number of issues with some of his facts and figures. While shadow education secretary Kate Green pulled no punches and said his blunders in the chamber were "further evidence of his serial incompetence".

Williamson's wretched week in Westminster got no better as it went on. Yesterday, FE Week was surprised to report that the minister had promised the Commons that T-levels would be an option for adults of any age to study as part of the government's new lifetime skills guarantee. Department for Education rules state that T-levels can only be taken by 16 to 19 year olds.


Universities reminded of dangers of illegally blocking fire exits

UCU has warned that spending the summer misspelling a student experience, meant universities did not have enough time to prepare for the chaos we now see on campus. That appeared worryingly evident this week after pictures emerged of locked fire exits at in student accommodation.

This prompted UCU and the Fire Brigades Union to write to universities reminding them it was "dangerous and illegal" to block or lock fire exits, The FBU and UCU warned universities that any action to fix shut a fire exit was a breach of the law in every part of the UK, and that the "pandemic was no excuse, nor mitigating factor for this sort of action.

Jo Grady said: 'These worrying fire safety breaches are just another example of why it was so crass of education secretary Gavin Williamson to say universities were well prepared for the developing crisis on our campuses.'


Staff and students demand ministers act to deal with university Covid crisis

UCU also teamed up with the National Union of Students this week and called for urgent action from the Westminster Government to deal with the crisis. In a joint statement, the unions called for online working, students to be allowed to return home if they wish and funding guarantees to safeguard universities' finances and protect jobs.

Times Higher Education reported how UCU and NUS had been "inundated" with reports of students being unable to access food or mental health services or feeling they cannot leave their accommodation because of their rental contract.

Speaking to the BBC, Jo Grady said: 'Ministers need to act now and tell universities to halt in-person teaching where possible and move the majority of work online, in line with other workplaces.' NUS president Larissa Kennedy said the situation was exacerbating poor mental health and needlessly risking lives.


Unions demand colleges deliver on promise to increase staff pay 

Away from the Covid crisis, colleges were told this week that they had to deliver on their promise to increase staff pay now the government had provided further education with an extra £400 million in funding.

Trade unions said it was time for colleges to finally agree a significant pay rise for further education staff and bring contracted staff back in-house as they launched their joint pay claim for England.

Jo Grady said told FE Week that with the £400 million investment from government, "colleges must now deliver on their promise to staff that they would be first in line when the money arrives". Speaking to Tes, she said: 'Any national Covid recovery plan must have further education at its core. But unless colleges honour their promise to pay staff, it will be impossible to attract and retain the staff colleges need to be able to play their role in the national recovery effort.'


Prime Minister's skills pitch can't undo a decade of cuts, says UCU

Responding to a speech on Tuesday by the Prime Minister, UCU said further education desperately needed funding because of a decade of cuts under Conservative governments.

Speaking to Tes, Jo Grady said: 'Further education is in dire need of funding, but that is because Conservative and coalition governments of the last 10 years have decimated it. It is remarkable that the prime minister has the audacity to lament a lack of funding for colleges and to criticise record student debt levels when they are the direct result of decisions taken by his party. Today's plans will not undo a decade of cuts.'

She welcomed the recognition of the role that colleges will have to play if the country is to come back stronger and build back better. But asked who was expected to deliver it: 'We have 24,000 fewer lecturers than a decade ago, and teaching in further education is not as attractive following a 30 per cent real-terms pay cut over the last decade. Colleges say they are already struggling to attract and retain staff to meet current demand', she said.



Last updated: 2 October 2020