NUS and UCU denounce DfE advice on in-person teaching

The unions accuse the government of offering contradictory statements on university operations during lockdown

The National Union of Students (NUS) and the University College Union (UCU) have jointly denounced the government decision to instruct universities to continue face-to-face teaching where possible.

Guidance published by the Department for Education (DfE) yesterday clarified that Covid-safe libraries and study spaces should remain open and encouraged researchers and research students to continue research activities onsite if research work “cannot reasonably be conducted from home”.

UCU and NUS have issued a joint statement calling on the Westminster government to revise their guidance for universities, and issue a clear call for working to be immediately moved online wherever possible during the current lockdown.

The unions accuse the government of offering contradictory statements on university operations during lockdown.

Government guidance issued on the 31st October urged that universities and adult education settings should “consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”, but a letter from the universities minister Michelle Donelan told vice-chancellors on Monday: “We do not, however want or expect to see a transition to full online learning during the new national restrictions.” Updated guidance on the 3rd November states: “We would expect face to face teaching to continue under the new restrictions where providers are able to do so in a COVID-secure way.”

UCU launched a judicial review against the government in Westminster, accusing ministers of ignoring advice from its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to move all university teaching online this term. The committee, made up of some of the country’s top scientists and experts, warned the government in September that Covid-19 outbreaks were made more likely if teaching at colleges and universities was conducted in-person. According to UCU figures, there have been more than 35,000 cases at UK universities – although a number of those are recorded at universities in the devolved regions, over which the Westminster government has no authority.

Larissa Kennedy, the president of the National Union of Students, said the government had “sold students a lie” by encouraging them to return to campuses.

Yesterday she questioned the government’s rationale for requesting students remain at their term-time address until the Christmas holidays. “If I were at university right now, I would not be staying. It’s not feasible for students, many of whom have already been in lockdown for weeks, to continue to be completely isolated over the next month. It could potentially be longer than that. Does that then roll into the end of term and into Christmas? Mental health is my key concern.”

The joint statement from the unions reads: “In light of the government’s updated guidance advising those who are Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) to work from home, we are further concerned that a failure to move provision online where possible will lead to avoidable disadvantages for CEV staff and students.”

“The government failed to ensure an adequate test and trace system in the summer – it must not make the same mistakes now,” it continued. “The government must use this four week lockdown wisely by shifting to online learning and getting an effective test and trace function in place.”

As well as calling for universities to immediately move to online learning where possible, the unions want students to have “a safe way to leave campus if they need or want to”, including rent rebates, and “mental health support and wellbeing resources”. The unions want the government to guarantee funding for universities and invest in digital learning technology in partnership with higher education providers.

It is crucial that students are not left in the dark as universities and colleges continue to adapt to public health advice and government guidance
Susan Lapworth, Office for Students

Meanwhile, the Office for Students (OfS) today wrote to universities and colleges to “highlight the importance of communicating changes to how courses are taught during the lockdown”. The reminder comes as the HE regulator discovered “some cases” where “universities are not communicating sufficiently clearly with their students”; the regulator was unwilling to be drawn on how many examples it was aware of.

Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the OfS, said: “As universities make changes in response to the developing situation, it is important that they continue to provide suitable academic support to all students and that the quality of education – including online teaching – remains high. A key part of this is ensuring that students clearly understand any new teaching arrangements and how their course will be delivered, both in the short and long term.”

“It is crucial that students are not left in the dark as universities and colleges continue to adapt to public health advice and government guidance. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and engage directly with providers to ensure they are delivering good quality teaching for all students.”

Despite the opposition, the president of Universities UK Prof Julia Buckingham vowed “it is even more important that they can get on with their education during the period of enhanced restrictions starting this week”.

“We welcome both the government’s confirmation that it does not want or expect a transition to full online learning, as well as their support for the blended approach being taken by the sector. Universities will continue offering some face-to-face learning and support where it is possible to do so in a safe physically distanced way, which we believe is important for the mental, emotional and educational wellbeing of students.”

“We await further guidance from the government on the possible roll-out of mass testing and plans for students to return home at Christmas,” she added.

Read more: Pandemic leaves higher education facing “significant funding shortfalls” – IFS

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