Government to blame for Covid crisis in UK universities, says UCU

As the union renews its call for a nationally coordinated response from the government, strike action from concerned staff appears likelier than ever

The number of coronavirus cases in UK universities is a direct result of the Westminster government refusing to act on expert advice, the University and College Union (UCU) said today (October 13).

Approximately 9,000 university students have tested positive for coronavirus, universities minister Michelle Donelan told the House of Commons yesterday, with outbreaks recorded at nearly 70 universities.

‘Ministers were given clear recommendations on how to stem the spread of the virus before term started at the vast majority of universities,” said UCU general secretary Jo Grady, after it was revealed that the government opted not to act on a number of recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, including transferring all higher education teaching online unless in-person teaching was imperative.


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“They could have taken swift and decisive action then and instructed universities to move their teaching online to mitigate against tens of thousands of students moving across the country,” added Grady.

“The chaos we see on campus and in halls of residence now is a direct result of ministers’ decision to ignore that advice and choose to put the health of university staff, students and local communities at risk.

“To stop more areas being forced into harsher restrictions, we need a nationally coordinated response from government that belatedly moves working online at universities. Students must be allowed to return home if they wish, provided it is safe to do so.”

The chaos we see on campus and in halls of residence now is a direct result of ministers’ decision to ignore advice and choose to put the health of university staff, students and local communities at risk – Jo Grady, UCU

Last month, the UCU said it would support industrial action if institutions were deemed to be taking insufficient steps to keep staff safe from Covid-19.

With cases of the virus rising rapidly across UK campuses, chances remain high that such a threat could be enacted.

Staff at three UCU-affiliated institutions – the universities of Birmingham, Leeds and Warwick – have said they will strike if face-to-face teaching is not stopped in favour of remote learning.

A ballot on industrial action at Northumbria University, which saw 1,179 coronavirus cases in the fortnight to 7 October, was only narrowly avoided when the institution moved to online teaching for three weeks.

Such a move does not come without its own potential pitfalls, one vice-chancellor told Times Higher Education, with the closure of buildings and support services putting jobs at risk.

“[Students’] voices and concerns are keenly focused on just how much they want their student experience to be one where they feel part of a real community, with as many opportunities as possible for face-to-face teaching and learning, and for forming new friendships,” they added.

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