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UCU and NUS issue joint statement calling on universities  to move online where possible for new English lockdown

4 November 2020

The University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS) have today (Wednesday) said that the government's failure to instruct universities to move to online learning where possible would put public health at risk.

UCU and NUS have issued a joint statement* calling on the Westminster government to revise their guidance for universities, and issue a clear call for working to be immediately moved online wherever possible during the current lockdown in England. 

The unions said that the latest government advice on online learning was contradictory. Government guidance on the 31 October stated that universities and adult education settings should "consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible" but a letter from the universities minister Michelle Donelan to vice chancellors on Monday called for universities to ensure "all students have some form of face-to-face learning" and updated guidance on the 3 November states "We would expect face to face teaching to continue".

UCU and NUS said that instead of sending mixed messages, the government should encourage all universities to follow the example of institutions who have already moved their provision online following the lockdown announcement. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The health and safety of the country is being put at risk because of this government's insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching. Lessons need to be learnt from the outbreaks we have seen on campuses across the country this term. Some universities have already moved the vast majority of their teaching online since the national lockdown was announced; instead of issuing contradictory advice we now we need ministers to step in and tell the rest to follow suit. The government must use this period to establish a workable test, trace and isolate system so the country can stop yo-yoing in and out of isolation.' 

NUS president Larissa Kennedy said: 'The government needs to give students some power and control over their lives again.  They sold students a lie of a normal student experience in the summer, and dragged everyone back to campuses to get their rent money and then blamed them for a second wave. 

'This has got to stop, and it's causing a huge toll on students' mental health. Let students leave their halls, their rental contracts and their courses without financial detriment; support those who want to stay. Students deserve better than being scapegoated, lied to and left in the dark about their rights throughout the pandemic.' 

UCU and NUS have consistently warned that government and universities were taking chances with the health and safety of students, staff and local communities.

A previous joint statement issued in October highlighted concerns that the Westminster government had ignored its own pandemic modelling group that showed halls of residences and in-person teaching were areas of risk.

UCU has collated over 35,000 cases of Covid on campuses across the UK. It has also launched a legal challenge to the government's decision to ignore advice from its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to move learning at universities online.   

*Full joint UCU and NUS statement 

The University and College Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) remain extremely concerned that the government ignored its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), an action which prompted UCU to launch a judicial review. 

Since the return to campus in September, universities have become incubators of Covid and transmission hotspots. We may never know the full cost of the government's decision to ignore SAGE's advice to move learning online, but we do know that infection rates have been up to seven times higher at universities than in surrounding areas, and we are now deep into a second Covid wave. Continuing in-person learning where it could reasonably be delivered remotely risks unnecessarily inflating infection rates around campus. 

We are very concerned that universities will continue to see outbreaks on this scale unless they immediately move to online learning where possible. 

In light of the government's updated guidance advising those who are Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) to work from home, we are further concerned that a failure to move provision online where possible will lead to avoidable disadvantages for CEV staff and students.  

 Many students have already spent the duration of this term yo-yoing in and out of self-isolation, separated from family and friends, when they could otherwise have been at home. Staff have been exhausted by the demand to provide blended learning, and all involved have been required to take needless risks with this safety. This has also taken a huge toll on student and staff mental wellbeing. Students must be allowed to leave campus without facing financial detriment. 

The government failed to ensure an adequate test and trace system in the summer - it must not make the same mistakes now. 

The government must use this four week lockdown wisely by shifting to online learning and getting an effective test and trace function in place 

 We are calling for: 

  • immediate move to online learning wherever possible 
  • giving students the right to leave, or stay, safely: we need to see urgent investment of resources so that students are offered a safe way to leave campus if they need or want to, and support, including mental health support and well-being resources 
  • no financial detriment to any student giving up accommodation, or choosing to defer or leave university 
  • increased provision of mental health support for students, across universities and colleges 
  • investing in digital technology, ending digital poverty: ensure that tech and equipment cease to be barriers in accessing their education as much as possible 
  • guaranteed funding for universities and colleges to help them deal with any shortfall or additional expenses due to Covid-19. 
Last updated: 6 November 2020