The University and College Union (UCU) hailed the postponement of in-person teaching at universities until mid-February as a victory, but warns the plan leaves staff “in limbo”.
It said the “belated decision still falls far short of what is required for the duration of this pandemic”.
The delay to teaching would require staff to switch modes of delivery in the middle of the term, UCU said. The sector’s largest trade union said the government should instruct universities to continue online delivery for the entire teaching term and only consider face-to-face teaching after Easter.
It also called for universities to release students from paying for accommodation and urged the government to underwrite universities’ financial losses during the pandemic.
There is no need to push for in-person teaching to resume in seven weeks. The priority is to get control of the pandemic
– Jo Grady, UCU
Several universities have already announced that in-person teaching will not recommence in mid-February, with LSE, York and UCL among them. In a message to students, LSE director Minouche Shafik said there would be no further in-person teaching during this academic year – although the provider does hope some limited classes can be conducted on-site before the summer.
York also instructed that most students would not receive in-classroom tuition during the spring term, except for those on health and education courses. The university said it hoped subjects with specialist teaching facilities, like studios and laboratories, could soon offer limited in-person teaching. UCL told students last week that in-person teaching would not take place before Easter.
UCU launched a legal challenge against the government decision not to instruct universities to cancel in-person teaching during the autumn term, contrary to the advice from its scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE). The union said it hopes its case “will be heard shortly”.
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, [which] 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.”
She continued: “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 National Union of Students (NUS) today said the impact of another lockdown would have a “severe” impact on education and welfare.
NUS vice-president for higher education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio said universities must provide “high-quality” online teaching, no-detriment policies, rent rebates, break-clauses in tenancy agreements and online student mental health services. She said the government should help with funding to support this.
In response to the NUS, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we have prioritised their education and wellbeing throughout the pandemic. Recently we announced up to £20 million to help students most in need of financial support in these exceptional circumstances.
“Universities are expected to maintain quality and academic standards and the quantity of tuition should not drop. They should seek to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, can access their studies remotely. We also encourage landlords to be fair and consider students’ interests in their decisions about rent charges.
“We have worked closely with the Office for Students, providing up to £3 million to fund the mental health platform Student Space in response to the pandemic, which works alongside university and NHS services.”