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UCU takes legal action against on campus health and safety

25 October 2020 | last updated: 26 October 2020

On Friday UCU entered the first phase of legal action against the Westminster government. The action is intended to force a review of its guidance on in-person work on university and college campuses. You can read more about it in today's Observer.

Based on our legal advice this action has been targeted at the Westminster government, but it is intended to have a positive impact in Wales and Northern Ireland as well. Our aim is to cause ministers in all jurisdictions to account for their decisions and put the strongest possible plans in place ahead of the next term.

On September 21 the Westminster government's own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned about the dangers of allowing significant in-person teaching to take place on campuses. SAGE recommended that teaching in universities should be moved online, with the exception of subjects that cannot be taught remotely.

SAGE also fully recognised the complexity of FE as a form of education that is embedded in local communities with many staff and students who have not been given the resources to work or study remotely, but it also registered that those staff and students are often disproportionately vulnerable to Covid-19.

Members in universities deserve to know why the prime minister chose to ignore his own scientific advisors, as well as the other independent advisers along with staff and student unions who had been calling for teaching to move online since August. The legal action is intended to force the government to act now to protect students and staff and to make better decisions ahead of next term. Although for technical reasons the action has to be targeted at the Westminster government, it is intended to have positive knock-on effects for the devolved nations as well. Your representatives in those jurisdictions will be lobbying their governments to make sure that happens.

The reopening of campuses has come at a terrible cost, with tens of thousands of infections among the student population and increasing numbers of staff also testing positive. Outbreaks have been handled appallingly in a number of institutions, with students mistreated and deprived of food and other support. University outbreaks have contributed to local lockdowns that will damage local economies. Meanwhile, staff - for all their hard work over the summer to get ready for this term - have been left with unbearable workloads as they confront the challenges of blended learning and pick up the pieces of a failing UK wide strategy.

We cannot let our governments make the same mistakes again. Our pre-action protocol letter to the Department for Education challenges the government's decisions and sets out how ministers' and universities' poor handling of the pandemic stems from their unwillingness to fix the broken funding system that incentivises institutions to compete with one another for tuition fee revenue.

In an article in today's Observer I explain further how the government's failure to guarantee funding for the sector has exacerbated this crisis. I argue that we need immediate support to allow universities to put safety first, and we need a fairer, more stable and safer long-term alternative to the tuition fee system.

Your hard work in branches has already forced a number of employers to reduce your exposure to Covid-19 by moving more work online. Meanwhile UCU staff have been working to support you, lobby politicians, coordinate support from other organisations and generate as much press coverage as possible of what is happening. This legal action offers us a new route that could force a change of plan across the board.

Please don't forget to keep checking our website for Covid-19 updates and email me if you have any questions not covered there.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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