UCU launches DfE legal challenge over in-person teaching

Union sends “pre-action letter” to Gavin Williamson over government’s decision to ignore SAGE warning

The University and College Union (UCU) has launched a legal challenge against the government in Westminster, accusing the Tory executive of ignoring advice from its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to move all university teaching online this term.

The legal challenge was first reported in the Observer on Sunday after the union shared with the newspaper a “pre-action letter” sent to the education secretary Gavin Williamson.

The UCU believes the government decision to allow universities to return students to campus, despite a warning from SAGE about the impact this could have on coronavirus transmission rates, is unlawful and is seeking a judicial review.

Students who were told that campuses would be safe have been betrayed by ministers
– Jo Grady, UCU

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. Despite repeated calls by the union, the government has rejected the proposal that English universities conduct teaching online as a matter of course.

The union wants government to financially support universities to move online, which would release students to return home before Christmas. The UCU does not want students to return to campus next term.

UCU requested the government provide “all submissions, emails, memos, discussion papers, costing and any other documents” relating to “the recommendation from SAGE on 21 September 2020 that all university and college teaching be moved online” and “the financial support to be given to the higher education sector”.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “We may never know the full impact of the decision to ignore SAGE’s warning, but we have seen infection rates up to seven times higher at universities than in surrounding areas, and over 27,000 cases of Covid on campus with reports of students in intensive care. We are now witnessing a second wave that was preventable.

“Westminster’s failure to support the higher education sector financially has driven universities to prioritise student recruitment over health and safety, with staff, students and local communities paying the price.

“We are taking this legal action to find out why the government ignored its own scientists’ advice, and to pressure it to move all but essential in-person teaching at English universities online, so that we can lower the rate of transmission and help stem the crisis. At the same time, we need stronger guidance and better support to minimise and control outbreaks in English colleges.

“Students who were told that campuses would be safe have been betrayed by ministers. Steps need to be taken to allow students to return home safely as soon as possible – not two weeks before Christmas. Once students have returned home, ministers should consult their scientific advisors and staff and student unions to determine whether it is safe for them to go back to campus in January. We hope this legal action will stop the government making the same mistakes next term. It would be reprehensible if ministers and universities unleashed a new wave of infections by repeating this farce.”

The government has until 4pm on 6 November to respond.

Read more: Scottish government looks at ‘staggered’ return of students after Christmas

Header image via Flickr.

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