Universities prioritise safety amid union call for campus closures

Universities and sector bodies respond to the University and College Union’s call for a suspension to in-person teaching

The government should instruct universities to “abandon in-person teaching” as the number of UK coronavirus cases rise, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) has said as she called on HE providers in Liverpool and Newcastle to close campuses amid outbreaks of Covid-19 in the cities.

The union that represents around 120,000 lecturers in the higher and further education sectors warned that reopening campuses risks universities “becoming incubators of Covid” and “transmission hotspots”. 

The universities in the affected areas have, however, modified their approaches to the first term, and are confident of the measures in place to protect staff and students. 

“If this government is serious about reducing the number of confirmed cases then it must now tell universities to abandon in-person teaching,” UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady said. The union is lobbying the government to stop universities conducting any face-to-face teaching next term. Some of the government’s guidance on reopening learning spaces was labelled “silly” by the union last week; opening windows to offer better ventilation, for example, was described as impractical in the autumn and winter months.

There is a careful balancing of the risk of any potential future national or local lockdowns and ensuring that young people – who have faced incredible disruption during the pandemic – can continue with their education
Universities UK

Under present restrictions, universities – in common with schools and colleges – are permitted to continue some socially distanced in-person teaching. The Department for Education (DfE) has published a four-tier plan for reopening educational institutions. 

Tier 1, the default position, expects universities “provide blended learning, with face-to-face tuition, following the provisions of this guidance, and public health guidance, including, for example, the appropriate use of face coverings”. Tiers 2 and 3 require universities prioritise in-person teaching to those subjects and students with the greatest need. Tier 4, the DfE’s “last resort”, requires universities shut except for “essential workers…and research”. Universities in both Liverpool and Newcastle have confirmed to University Business (UB) their shift Tier 2 working. 

Universities prioritise safety amid union call for campus closures Newcastle University
Newcastle University has presently pared back in-person contact time in response to an outbreak of coronavirus in the city.

Universities are offering students a blend of face-to-face and online learning: some, like the University of St Andrews, have announced that only 10% of teaching will be in-person for the first seven weeks of term, while others, like UCL and the universities of East Anglia and Exeter, are offering in-house Covid-19 testing to staff and students. Although sport is unaffected, universities have had to restrict student social and accommodation spaces.

Grady told universities in Liverpool and Newcastle, where there are presently a rising number of coronavirus cases, to close immediately. She also called on Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to “share full details of COVID cases at the institution with staff” after anonymous reports from UCU members suggest “cases in every faculty of the university, with reports of multiple cases in the Business School”. UB has approached MMU for a response to the UCU allegation. 

Last week, UCU said it would support industrial action if universities health and safety procedures were “not up to scratch”. “We want to know what plans colleges and universities have for testing, details of their risk assessments and how they will protect people in the event of an outbreak,” Grady said on Wednesday 16 September. UB has asked UCU to provide a list of universities that have failed to share the plans Grady said the union lacks: so far, UCU has shared no such list with this publication.

Universities UK rejected the union’s call to halt in-person teaching.

A spokesperson commented: “As well as practical measures, including enhanced cleaning and ventilation, social distancing techniques such as managing the flow of students, and using safety partitions and masks, universities are reducing in-person group sizes to minimise potential interactions and exposure to the virus. Universities are also working very closely in partnership with their local authorities, public health bodies and others to ensure that effective and rapid outbreak response plans are in place and clearly understood.

“There is a careful balancing of the risk of any potential future national or local lockdowns and ensuring that young people – who have faced incredible disruption during the pandemic – can continue with their education. Universities recognise that this is a difficult and uncertain time for everyone and will be considering the needs of staff and students on an individual basis.

“UUK previously outlined principles to help ensure the safe return of staff and students to university, which included principles jointly agreed between UCEA and the trade unions on working safely on campus during the pandemic. Universities will be continuing constructive conversations with sector trade unions to keep students and staff safe and to support learning, research and support.”

Cases confirmed in multiple halls of residence

During welcome week, universities have staggered the arrival times for new students so that freshers and their parents and guardians can socially distance while moving into halls of residence. The College and University Business Officers (CUBO) has published guidance for student accommodation providers ahead of the new academic term.

Universities prioritise safety amid union call for campus closures Abertay University
A student at Abertay University tested positive for coronavirus, prompting students at a halls of residence to self-isolate.

There are multiple reports of outbreaks in halls of residences. Yesterday, it was confirmed that 500 students in Dundee are self-isolating for 14 days after a student at Abertay University tested positive for Covid-19. Seventy students at a University of Aberdeen halls of residence are also self-isolating after an undisclosed number tested positive for coronavirus. The University of Glasgow today confirmed that 124 students had tested positive for Covid-19 – and 600 are now self-isolating as result. The outbreak centred on the Murano Street and Cairncross residences.

The government’s independent scientific advisors warned last month there is a “significant risk” that students returning to university will increase coronavirus transmission rates.

“It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making,” warned the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). A safe return to campus would only be possible if government launched a “clear strategy” for testing and tracing suspected cases, the experts added.

Universities prioritise safety amid union call for campus closures University of Liverpool
Liverpool University has promised tests (with 24-hour turnaround times) for students and staff presenting symptoms. Image via Flickr.

Universities in Liverpool 

Our investment in an on-campus testing facility for staff and students displaying symptoms means that we are in a position to report on the numbers in our community who test positive and, importantly, to act quickly to stop the spread – Prof Louise Kenny, Universty of Liverpool

The University of Liverpool has promised free tests to students and staff presenting Covid-19 symptoms, with results provided within 24 hours.

Prof Louise Kenny, Liverpool’s executive pro-vice-chancellor, today responded to UCU’s call to close HE campuses in Merseyside. 

“Like other members of Liverpool’s population, university students and staff members are also experiencing more COVID-19 cases. Our investment in an on-campus testing facility for staff and students displaying symptoms means that we are in a position to report on the numbers in our community who test positive and, importantly, to act quickly to stop the spread. We continue to work closely with Liverpool City Council’s Public Health team and Public Health England, and all those who have tested positive, together with their close contacts, have been informed that they now need to self-isolate in line with national guidance.

“Students play an important role in the life of the city, and we have worked with partners, landlords, accommodation providers and other universities in Liverpool to undertake careful, detailed planning for their return. The university has been at the forefront of regional and national efforts to respond to the pandemic, and we are well-placed to use our expertise and facilities to put in place innovative measures to help protect our staff and student community. Face-to-face teaching is an essential component of many of our courses to ensure that our graduates have the skills they need for future roles in healthcare, engineering and many other sectors and industries.”

Dr Penny Haughan, Liverpool Hope’s pro-vice-chancellor, said she had decided to “temporarily restrict face-to-face teaching for the coming four weeks”. Until November, undergraduates at Liverpool Hope not requiring the use of specialist teaching spaces – such as workshops, laboratories and studios – will join tutorials, seminars and lectures online.

Said Dr Haughan: “Rigorous, independently verified, risk assessments have been conducted to make sure we make the appropriate adjustments to life at the university, and the safety of our students and staff will always remain paramount. Students grouped in ‘learning bubbles’, and there are residential bubbles when they arrive in Halls, another measure designed to safeguard health and wellbeing.”

Liverpool Hope has launched a track and trace initiative – “the ‘SafeZone’ app” – and a “Covid-19 alert status system”, which offer daily updates to staff and students via email and text and on display screens around campus. The university has also launched a “request and collect” service for library materials. 

University Business has approached Liverpool John Moores University for comment.

Universities-prioritise-safety-amid-union-call-for-campus-closures-Northumbria-University
Northumbria University said it would update online working rules when government advises

Universities in Newcastle 

Our arrangements have been designed cautiously and are in line with the DfE’s Tier 2 guidance, a key aim of which is to retain face-to-face teaching where it is clearly beneficial to students and is possible to do so safely
Northumbria University

A spokesperson from Northumbria University said the institutions management had “worked closely with our recognised trade unions” to develop “policies, processes and risk assessments” ahead of the new term.

“Our arrangements have been designed cautiously and are in line with the DfE’s Tier 2 guidance, a key aim of which is to retain face-to-face teaching where it is clearly beneficial to students and is possible to do so safely. Where colleagues are working on campus, we have taken mitigating actions in line with government guidance to make the working environment safe. 

“Naturally, we fully understand the concerns of colleagues at this present time, and we will adapt our learning model to place more emphasis on online learning when guidance deems this necessary. Anyone with particular concerns about working on campus can discuss this with their line manager in the first instance,” the Northumbria spokesperson added.

A spokesperson for Newcastle University said the university, in collaboration with the city and local public health officials, had moved to comply with Tier 2 restrictions. 

“The prime minister has today made it clear that education settings, including universities, are essential and will remain open and continue to offer a blended learning approach, including some face-to-face university teaching where possible. We take our responsibility for the health, safety and wellbeing of our students, our colleagues and local communities extremely seriously and will continuously reassess our position to consider the changing regional and national picture,” the spokesperson added. 

The view from the estate directors 

Stephen Wells – director of estates at the University of Surrey and chair of the Association of University Director of Estates (AUDE) – explained to University Business the challenge teams like his face reopening campuses because of the complex nature of university operations. In May 2020, Mr Wells told this publication the bronze command team at Surrey broke down the functions of every single university building to a “granular level”, tracking the journeys, activities and events in the working day of every facility searching for “pinch points” – moments where spaces could become crowded.

“Ultimately, it’s about delivering the best experience for every student but safely and within the constraints we have,” he continued. “But every single estates director I’ve spoken to is having robust pragmatic conversations with health and safety teams, academics and senior leaders about what can be achieved within the current guidelines.”


Read more: Return to campus: how universities are approaching this difficult decision

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