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Government U-turn on in-person teaching at universities is a 'step forward'

2 December 2020 | last updated: 11 December 2020

UCU said the government U-turn on online learning was an important 'step forward' after months of campaigning for non-essential in-person teaching to be moved online.

The union was responding to government guidance or students on returning to university after the Christmas break, which includes plans for online teaching to be the default until at least 8 February (2021) and for further use of mass testing. Earlier this term, universities Minister Michelle Donelan had said she expected in-person teaching to continue during the Covid pandemic. The DfE then told universities to move online from 3 December to allow students to be tested and leave university for the Christmas holidays. 

UCU said that provision for online learning must remain in place until the pandemic has been brought under control. UCU raised concerns over how students' eventual return to universities will be managed, and said the sector and the government need to plan well in advance and concentrate on supporting staff and students. 

The union said the government and universities needed to learn the lessons from their disastrous handling of a mass return to campus, which has caused almost 50,000 (48,764) cases of Covid on university campuses this term, according to UCU's Covid tracker. Earlier this week, UCU said the decision to allow in-person teaching to continue until 3 December had forced universities to commence an unreliable, rushed, mass testing programme.  

UCU highlighted that the lateral flow tests being offered to students have been criticised as 'entirely unsuitable' for the government's mass testing programme, leading to higher incidences of incorrect test results. It said that it could not even be sure there would be enough testing in place, after the Independent reported that only 75% of universities in England are participating in the programme. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'After months of campaigning by UCU, the government has finally seen sense and said that online learning should be the default position until at least 8 February.  

'The government's insistence that students could return to universities to receive in-person teaching has led to almost 50,000 cases of Covid on campus - and may have helped instigate the second wave. We may never know the cost of the government's decisions. It took sustained campaigning from UCU along with widespread student protests for ministers to listen. 

'This is a step forward, but plans for next term still pose a risk to staff and student safety. The government has shirked responsibility for testing students and left it in the hands of individual universities when we need a joined-up approach to control the virus. The plans rely on lateral flow tests, which scientists have described as unsuitable for testing programmes like this. A quarter of universities are not taking part in December's mass testing programme and we cannot be sure there are enough tests in place to test every student. 

'We need to see an effective test, trace and isolate programme that links university and public testing systems. This must include coordinating student travel between institutions, and risk assessments on any return to campus. We need online learning to remain the default position for universities until these issues are fixed, otherwise we risk further spikes in virus transmission.  

'Universities must work with the government to support students who decide the reality of life on campus during this pandemic isn't for them, including releasing them from accommodation contracts.  Ministers need to step in and underwrite any extra costs universities face supporting students and staff, so that universities don't put finances over staff and student welfare during the pandemic.' 

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