Oxford, Manchester Met and Edge Hill ‘flouting’ Covid guidelines, says UCU

The union suggested the universities were motivated by financial concerns

The universities of Oxford, Manchester Metropolitan, and Edge Hill are “flouting” the government guidelines for higher education providers offering face-to-face teaching during the pandemic, the University and College Union has said.

Accusing the three institutions of thinking “they know better” than the government-set guidelines on re-opening educational settings, UCU general secretary Jo Grady today attacked the providers for “breaching” and “exploiting” the recommendations.

Universities reliance on income from tuition fees is responsible for much of the disruption and uncertainty faced by staff and students over the past year. The government needs to provide secure, long-term funding for all institutions
Jo Grady, UCU

The guidelines state that in-person teaching should resume from today (Monday 8 March) if subjects are practical or practice-based and require specialist equipment and facilities. “Providers should not ask students to return if their course can reasonably be continued online,” the guidelines suggest.

The union disclosed a link to Edge Hill timetables for undergraduates that feature in-person teaching for students studying computer sciences, psychology, and law. The union claimed it was possible to teach these subjects online.

A spokesperson for Edge Hill said the “health, safety and wellbeing” remained the university’s “main priority”.

They added: “No student will attend for more than one day per week and the majority of our students will continue to learn online .We continue to ensure we are a Covid secure campus, keeping our staff and student community safe. Colleagues have worked hard to ensure all teaching spaces are set up in accordance with Government guidance and the measures we have put in place to control ri​sks have been verified by an external Health and Safety adviser and implemented in consultation with local authorities, Public Health and through sharing best practice with other HEIs.

“With no Covid cases on campus and no staff cases, we are continuing to ensure staff and students adhere to our Community Pledge and play their part in reducing the impact of the virus.”

UCU complained that Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) intended for staff in the faculty of science and engineering, the school of theatre, the school of art, and the fashion institute to provide “three hours of in-person teaching per week for up to half [the university’s] student body” of around 32,000 students.

These courses fulfil the government definition of practical or practice-based subjects, the university argued – but the union raised concerns “that much of the teaching does not require specialist equipment and can be taught online”.

A spokesperson for MMU said the university “has a large number of practice-based courses, with a large provision of creative disciplines as well as STEM”.

The university said it “strongly refutes the UCU’s allegations”, adding that it  aimed “to deliver a high-quality education, while assuring the safety of our staff and students and following government guidance”.

“Our students have regularly told us and our Students’ Union that they value in-person teaching and learning support. For practical and practice-based courses, as outlined in the government roadmap, access to specialist spaces is a crucial element of study. Therefore, we are extremely pleased to be able offer some on-campus activity again. We are delivering this in line with the latest government guidance and continue to work hard to keep our campus COVID secure. We remain committed to responding promptly to any concerns from our staff and students.”

Evelyn Sweeney, president of the MMU students’ union welcomed the return to campus, stating it was “hugely important for students’ wellbeing and learning”.

“Students tell us that in-person teaching creates a sense of belonging, helps them build stronger relationships and does a great deal to alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness. So we support and encourage it whenever possible, alongside flexibility for those who cannot attend in person,” she continued.

The Guardian reported yesterday that MBA students at the University of Oxford will attend in-person seminars and workshops at the Saïd business school from today. Students on eight other postgraduate courses were also permitted to return. Oxford told the Guardian the “nine taught postgraduate courses […] have a practical element or are practice-based”. The MBA “is an applied programme with substantial practical elements to each module, particularly at this stage of the academic year”.

University Business has contacted Oxford and Edge Hill for responses.

Dr Grady said: “Government guidelines created to protect us from Covid say that teaching should remain online wherever possible, but the universities of Oxford, Manchester Metropolitan and Edge Hill seem to think they know better and are flouting them. Any university encouraging students back on to campus when teaching could be carried out online must ask itself whether it is doing so for the sake of its students or its bank balance.

“We have called for as much teaching as possible to be kept online for the rest of this academic year to protect staff, students and the wider community. Universities reliance on income from tuition fees is responsible for much of the disruption and uncertainty faced by staff and students over the past year. The government needs to provide secure, long-term funding for all institutions.”

Read more: UCLan: UCU members back strike action

Read more: Whistleblower wins case against Saïd Business School

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