Universities in England should cancel plans for in-person teaching and allow students to return home, the general secretary of the University and College Union has told the prime minister.
In a letter sent to Boris Johnson this morning, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said online teaching should now be universities’ “default position”. So far about 40 universities have reported coronavirus cases among their student cohorts.
She urged Mr Johnson to take “swift action” and instruct vice-chancellors to abandon their plans to reopen campuses ahead of the next term.
Ms Grady’s plea follows reports of outbreaks at multiple student halls of residence in multiple cities, including, but not limited to, Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee.
UCU has accused universities of “hiding behind the government’s current sectoral guidance”, which the union feels is vague and ambiguous. Ms Grady wants students to return home and universities to move towards “high quality online teaching” until the new year.
“We have concerns that universities are taking this stubborn position because they depend on rents from student accommodation – and because your own government refuses to step in and underwrite universities’ lost income for the duration of the pandemic to ensure they are not negatively impacted and jobs are not lost,” she added.
Professor David Green CBE, the University of Worcester’s vice-chancellor, repeated yesterday the reasons he wanted to welcome students back to campus next term. “It is vital that universities remain open and highly supportive of our students. At Worcester, our aim is to be an educational hotspot and a coronavirus cold spot. It is important for most students’ educational progress and mental health that they are able to learn in-person as well as online.”
The Worcester vice-chancellor said his university is supporting students to “immediately self-isolate” if they test positive for coronavirus and is offering support with “supplies of nutritious food as well as phone and online buddies for sociability, together with mental health counselling if required”.
Despite the reassurances, Prof Green admitted that “rapid, reliable” coronavirus testing is “essential” for universities to operate safely during the pandemic.
Some universities – like Cambridge, UCL, Exeter, Leicester and East Anglia – have launched their own testing programmes for staff and students who present coronavirus symptoms.
Students in Scotland were today told by education minister Richard Lochhead they can return home if there is a “reasonable excuse”, such as a family emergency. Mr Lochead does not “expect a mass exodus from Scotland’s campuses” but said the opportunity “is there for those that are struggling”.
Office for Student ‘will investigate’ student reports
They can also inform the OfS, and we can and will investigate if we believe that universities have not taken all reasonable steps to protect standards or where quality is slipping for groups of students
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students
The Office for Students (OfS) warned universities today that it would “be following up with individual universities and colleges where we have concerns about the arrangements they are making for teaching and academic support”. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the higher education regulator, told students to contact her organisation “and we can and will investigate if we believe that universities have not taken all reasonable steps to protect standards or where quality is slipping for groups of students”.
Ms Grady’s letter to the prime minister comes less than 24 hours after Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green wrote to her counterpart in government calling on the government to pause the return to campus until an “effective, efficient testing system” is operational.
Ms Green told Gavin Williamson that the situation in universities “is becoming critical and must not continue unchecked”, adding: “The public has been instructed that if they can work from home, they should do so. All students must have the choice to study remotely and should not be forced to attend face to face lectures or tutorials.”
Students should not financially lose out if they chose to return to their out-of-term address, the Labour frontbencher added.
Unlike UCU, Ms Green praised universities and laid the blame for the outbreaks at the door of the government. “Universities have done all they can to prepare for students’ safe return to campus, but the government has failed to play its part,” she said.
Many student halls are filled to capacity – with multiple students sharing bathroom, social and kitchen facilities. Last week, psychologists from 14 UK universities wrote to the government urging ministers not to blame students for the spread of the virus.
Labour yesterday accused the government of “sowing the seeds of chaos” by prevaricating over whether or not students will be compelled to stay at their university over the Christmas period if there is a Covid-19 outbreak.
Conservative party co-chair and cabinet member Amanda Milling MP yesterday claimed that “there are no plans to keep students at university over Christmas”, but health secretary Matt Hancock was unable to rule out the possibility when he was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday 24 September.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned in a report published earlier this month there was a significant risk that students not tested for coronavirus prior to leaving university at the end of term would increase the transmission of coronavirus around the country.
University and College Union letter in full:
Dear Prime Minister,
Safety on campuses – minimising in person teaching
I am writing from the University and College Union to urge you strengthen and clarify the current guidance for the safe return to university campus, and to ensure Covid-19 does not threaten to derail our students’ education and further damage the health of our communities.
Given the rapidly changing situation and the growing prevalence of Covid-19 across the country, and with the number of outbreaks on university campuses even at this early stage of the new academic year, now is the time for swift action and to ensure online teaching becomes the norm.
As you will be aware, UCU has been calling for some time for all higher education activity that can feasibly be undertaken remotely to be done so, and we have set out this position in the discussions with your colleague, universities minister Michelle Donelan.
We are only a week or two into the new academic year, and we already have Covid-19 outbreaks at institutions in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, and these are unlikely to be the last examples.
We know that the virus spreads exponentially indoors and that it is most prevalent amongst 17-21 year-olds. We have also seen the terrible impact that the virus has had already in this country, and my union is not prepared to take chances with health of students, our members and the communities they serve. It is clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life while we are in this precarious position with the virus.
However, what we are seeing on the ground is university employers hiding behind the government’s current sectoral guidance, with all the ambiguities associated with the term “blended learning”.
Professor Mark Woodhouse, from your government’s own pandemic modelling group, said yesterday that the current situation was not only entirely predictable, but that modelling showed halls of residences and in-person teaching were areas of risk.
Whilst other sectors are being encouraged by the government to work from home to help control the spread of the virus, universities are requiring staff to travel across their local regions to work on-site and in-person with any number of students.
Considering the known risks associated with in-person teaching and students living in close quarters, why did the government not insist on minimising in-person teaching and students travelling to universities?
We have concerns that universities are taking this stubborn position because they depend on rents from student accommodation – and because your own government refuses to step in and underwrite universities’ lost income for the duration of the pandemic to ensure they are not negatively impacted and jobs are not lost.
Our union is urging greater leadership from government on this matter, and clearer direction from you that all activity that can be done online should be done online for the time being. Taking this more sensible and cautious approach will help address the severe anxieties of staff in the sector, reduce in-person interaction between students, and help limit the spread of the virus.
I recognise the need to keep universities open, and your commitment to this, but I am urging you to join us in calling for all institutions to follow the example of providers such as Birkbeck London, Liverpool John Moores and Liverpool Hope, and move away from the lecture hall and to high quality online teaching as a way to protect staff and students.
Campus life cannot currently be safe with in-person teaching. Those currently working and studying in our universities need a national strategy that accepts this, moves teaching online for the duration of this term, and ensures students can safely return home where possible.
Action is needed now to protect the safety of students, staff and the wider community at this pivotal moment in the epidemic and I look forward to hearing from you.
University and College Union