Keep learning online for the rest of this academic year, says UCU

The UCU said doubts over testing efficacy undermine the government’s commitment to return students to campuses this term

Teaching should stay online until the autumn, says the largest trade union in the higher education sector – arguing a resumption of in-person learning this academic year would be “unsafe” for staff.

The University and College Union (UCU) said this weekend that a decision to postpone face-to-face teaching would support “burnt out” staff to “plan accordingly” and focus on providing the “best possible” online learning experience.

The government has told universities to teach online until mid-February for all but a few students on healthcare, medical and education courses. The University of York will delay in-person teaching until the summer term – while the London School of Economics postponed in-person education for the remainder of the academic year.

The UCU wants the rest of the sector to follow the LSE’s example – saying the government’s testing regime was not sufficiently safe to ensure a risk-free return to campus. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) told the government on Tuesday 12 January it had not authorised the daily use of “lateral flow” tests, because they offer asymptomatic students and pupils false reassurance. The tests, deployed in a Liverpool mass-testing programme, were criticised by experts for their false-positive rate.

In a letter seen by the British Medical Journal, a senior minister in the Department for Health and Social Care, James Bethell, admitted to an MP that the lateral flow tests were “not an accurate way of screening the general population.” Data released from the Liverpool pilot programme in November showed that these types of swab test detect just 48.89% of Covid-19 infections in asymptomatic people compared with a PCR test.

UCU warned its members would “fight” to stay working remotely; branches at Northumbria  and Birmingham City universities have already held successful ballots for industrial action over in-person working and other votes, including one at Manchester Metropolitan University, are afoot.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “We need as much university teaching as possible to remain online for the rest of the academic year. Death rates are higher than ever, and with the government’s rapid testing programme under severe scrutiny and the huge logistical hurdles in rolling out the vaccine, even an Easter return now looks hopelessly optimistic.

“If the government and universities will not commit to prioritising staff safety then UCU will continue to resist a return to unsafe campuses while committing to provide the highest possible quality of online teaching. We are willing to ballot universities that are putting our members’ wellbeing at risk and some UCU branches have already taken this step.

“University staff are also burnt out from the chaotic and unsustainable demands which the sector has placed on them this year. We need certainty and stability if staff are to continue giving students the best possible remote learning. Students are not cattle and should not be directed around the country to buttress university bank balances through their accommodation payments.

“We will not let universities sacrifice staff and student wellbeing on the altar of short-term financial incentives. But we are prepared to work with universities in calling on the government to refund students for lost accommodation, as well as underwriting the other extra costs which universities are facing this year.”

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