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Move to online learning is a victory, but latest lockdown leaves staff and students in limbo

5 January 2021

UCU said it was a victory for the union that the government had finally listened to it after months of campaigning and moved learning online in colleges and universities.

But the union warned the government's belated decision still falls far short of what is required for the duration of this pandemic.

UCU said the government must now commit to keeping the majority of teaching online for the entire term to give staff and students a stable mode of delivery after they have had to deal with constant disruption and uncertainty since March. The union said BTEC exams could not go ahead this week as colleges are not safe, and that university students need to be released from paying for accommodation they aren't using.

UCU was responding to the latest lockdown measures announced by prime minister Boris Johnson. The measures include keeping the majority of learning at colleges and universities online until mid-February, encouraging university students not to move to term time accommodation until then, and reviewing whether summer exams at schools and colleges will go ahead. But they do not include any changes to BTEC exams, which are still go ahead this week.

The move to remote learning follows months of campaigning by UCU to move non-essential in-person teaching online to protect the health and safety of staff, students and communities. The union tracked over 50,000 Covid cases in colleges and universities last term, and launched a legal challenge against the Westminster government's decision to ignore the advice of SAGE to move learning online.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'It is a victory for UCU that the government has finally listened to our demand for teaching to move online at universities and colleges where possible. However, the decision has been made so late and in such a chaotic manner that we are now in the midst of the disaster we warned against. Had we been listened to sooner the government may well have been able to get a grip on this crisis, averted needless illness and death, and avoided unnecessary disruption to education.

'Yet again, ministers have failed to prioritise education, and the chaotic way Boris Johnson has told institutions to move online has left staff and students in limbo.

'It is unacceptable for the government to ask staff and students to go onto college campuses this week for BTEC exams when we are in a national lockdown and when GCSE and A level exams are likely to be cancelled. Nor should university students be made to pay rent for accommodation they cannot use.

'Ministers now need to put education and the wellbeing of staff and students first. Staff need time to plan effectively and students must be supported to learn remotely. We can have no more last-minute chaos. There is no need to push for in-person teaching to resume in seven weeks. The priority is to get control of the pandemic. The government needs let students learn online until at least until the end of this term, allow university students to be released from accommodation contracts if they wish, and provide staff and students with the resources to make sure everyone can study remotely and gets sufficient mental health support. The government must also underwrite the sector against any lost income and any extra costs created due to these last-minute changes.

'We hope the government will work with us to implement and deliver online learning, and not rush back to dangerous in-person activities. But we also know the importance of holding this government's feet to the fire. That is why we are still pursuing a legal challenge against its decision to ignore SAGE's advice to move online in September, which we hope will be heard shortly.'

Last updated: 7 January 2021