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Northumbria University staff to ballot for industrial action and call for vice-chancellor to resign over Covid failures

6 October 2020

UCU members agreed to ballot for industrial action over Covid health and safety failings, and said Northumbria University vice-chancellor Professor Andrew Wathey must resign immediately, at an emergency online meeting.

The meeting was called after Northumbria University refused to address staff concerns about in-person teaching, even though 770 students have tested positive for Covid since returning to campus for the start of term. Northumbria UCU branch has urged the university to move learning online since the summer. It raised concerns that Professor Wathey was encouraging students to move to Newcastle last month, and declared a formal dispute on 24 September after management failed to address serious health and safety concerns. 

The university claimed it is continuing with in-person teaching on campus as it is only at tier 2, in line with government guidelines, despite the 770 Covid cases and local restrictions. Newcastle is one of the worst affected areas in the UK and has seen 1227 new cases over the past seven days. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The vice-chancellor has allowed an entirely preventable crisis to take place by encouraging students to move to Newcastle.  We now have a massive outbreak, which risks the lives of staff, students and the local community, yet he is still insisting on in-person teaching. He needs to own up to his failings and resign immediately.

'Our members do not want to take industrial action, but this is a matter of life and death. Unless the university changes course immediately, and moves to online learning as the default position, we will be balloting for industrial action.

'Government guidelines that allow a university to continue with in-person teaching despite being the site of a massive outbreak, in an area that is already badly affected by Covid, are not fit for purpose. The government needs to stop pretending universities are well prepared for this crisis, and tell them to halt in-person teaching and issue clear guidance to move as much work as possible online, in line with other workplaces.'

Last week education secretary Gavin Williamson rejected UCU's calls to move teaching online and told the House of Commons universities were well prepared for the Covid crisis.

Last updated: 8 February 2022