Northumbria University staff to vote on strike action

UCU members have unanimously voted to ballot for industrial action over Covid health and safety failings, and demanded resignation of vice-chancellor

Staff at Northumbria University are to vote on strike action over the university’s refusal to abandon face-to-face teaching due to a Covid outbreak on campus, as universities in Manchester today announced the cancellation of in-person teaching for a fortnight.

In an emergency online meeting today (Tuesday 6 October), University and College Union (UCU) members voted unanimously to ballot for industrial action and have also called for the immediate resignation of Northumbria University vice-chancellor Professor Andrew Wathey.

The strike would see union members refusing to teach face-to-face, but still teaching online.

At Northumbria University, 770 students have now tested positive for Covid-19 since returning to campus for the start of the new academic year.

The university told union members that it is continuing with in-person teaching on campus as it is only at Tier 2, in line with government guidelines, which says “HE providers should move to an increased level of online learning where possible” but “should prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment”.

UCU today praised the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University for the decision to move learning online from tomorrow until 30 October, after several halls in the city were locked down after reported coronavirus outbreaks.

The arrangements, which are in line with government and sector guidance, have been discussed at weekly meetings with UCU, Unison and faculty management teams and shared with all staff in regular updates from the vice-chancellor
Northumbria University

Speaking to the Northern Echo, Northumbria University said that the 770 figure represents the cumulative number of students who have reported testing positive since they started to return to university in mid-September.

It also said that the new self-reported cases on Friday totalled 78 – the lowest daily figure for five days.

“We acknowledge today’s decision to proceed to a ballot for industrial action by University and College Union (UCU),” a spokesperson told University Business.

“While we are disappointed with this outcome, we wish to continue to work constructively with both our trade unions, consult more widely with colleagues, and continue to discuss any concerns about our approach to learning and teaching.

“Our arrangements for teaching have been informed by the Department for Education’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. The government’s expectation is that universities continue to deliver a blended learning approach under the current restrictions.

“We will therefore continue to offer a mix of online remote learning with face-to-face teaching on campus for smaller groups under appropriate social distancing measures.

“We will continue to review our position based on the available evidence and informed by consultation with our city partners, Public Health England and other stakeholders in order to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our students, our staff and the wider community.

“We intend to continue to deliver the best possible teaching during any planned industrial action. It is what our students expect. We have made the necessary arrangements to do so safely, in line with government and Public Health England guidance, and with the endorsement and cooperation of our students’ union.”

In a statement given to the Northern Echo on Sunday 4th October, a spokesperson for Northumbria University said: “The arrangements, which are in line with government and sector guidance, have been discussed at weekly meetings with UCU, Unison and faculty management teams and shared with all staff in regular updates from the vice-chancellor.

“We are reassured that our risk assessments and mitigation arrangements put in place to ensure the campus is safe are robust.”

Northumbria UCU branch declared a formal dispute on 24 September after Northumbria University management failed to address serious health and safety concerns.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The vice-chancellor has allowed an entirely preventable crisis to take place by encouraging students to move to Newcastle.  We now have a massive outbreak, which risks the lives of staff, students and the local community, yet he is still insisting on in-person teaching. He needs to own up to his failings and resign immediately.

“Our members do not want to take industrial action, but this is a matter of life and death. Unless the university changes course immediately, and moves to online learning as the default position, we will be balloting for industrial action.

“Government guidelines that allow a university to continue with in-person teaching despite being the site of a massive outbreak, in an area that is already badly affected by Covid, are not fit for purpose. The government needs to stop pretending universities are well prepared for this crisis, and tell them to halt in-person teaching and issue clear guidance to move as much work as possible online, in line with other workplaces.’

Last week education secretary Gavin Williamson rejected UCU’s calls to move teaching online.

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