UCU hits the headlines with a call to pause campus reopening

On Sunday the story leading almost every news bulletin was the call by the University and College Union (UCU) to “scrap plans” to reopen campuses next month in order to “prevent a major public health crisis”.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Leading with the controversial headline “Universities must not become the care homes of a Covid second wave”, General Secretary Jo Grady spent much of the day on both TV and radio expressing fears that the mass migration of over a million students across the UK risks doing “untold damage” to people’s health and “exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes”.

On BBC Breakfast, NUS President Larissa Kennedy echoed the call, arguing that universities must “refrain from in-person teaching” unless absolutely necessary.

On Twitter, Grady gave a sense of the discussions leading up to the intervention, some of which appear to be about the government’s failure to get its act together on testing:

Of course what UCU didn’t do was say much on what could, should or would happen to the over 1 million rented bed spaces that those migrating students would be moving to – although to be fair it’s hardly UCU’s job to have detailed answers to questions of that sort, and did say that lost rental income from university-run halls should be compensated.

Alongside the headlines in the press notice, UCU published new guidance for branches on the reopening of campuses that is worth taking a look at.

Front and centre in the note is the advice on offer from Indie SAGE, the main measures in which UCU says branches should press their employers for agreement on before there is any substantial reopening of campus or resumption of any face-to-face teaching:

That to protect the safety of students, staff and prevent community infections all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work. Universities should focus on providing excellent quality remote learning rather than on opening up campuses that are likely to close again. For students who are studying from home the government should provide support through local Covid-safe study hubs and grants for technology and Wi-Fi.

If students have to attend campus a Covid-safe university should be secured through testing on or before arrival on campus followed up by further regular testing of students and staff; online welcome week and teaching in the first two weeks of term along with restrictions of social activities among students where feasible; mitigations in classrooms including masks, social distancing of two meters as the norm and regular cleaning; residential bubbles; a social agreement of Covid-safe behaviours on campus; full consultation with university staff,

Since Indie SAGE published its recommendations there have been some limited attempts to set aside or dismiss its recommendations – but in the absence of alternatives from actual SAGE, it’s probably fair enough.

Remember that the last we heard from proper SAGE, it noted the same concerns as UCU – that higher education settings often generate internal (and international) migration to towns and cities, involve formation of new households (particularly at the start and end of terms), and that university student populations engage in a broad range of activities, which result in complex networks. “These factors and others should be considered in guidance to these sectors ahead of autumn terms starting”, say the minutes from July 9th.

As a result the DfE’s Chief Scientific Advisor was supposed to be establishing a new science advisory group for higher and further education drawing on expertise from SAGE (and its subgroups) and PHE to provide advice. Not a peep out of that yet, and DfE’s quote for the UCU story just said that “we are keeping our guidance under constant review, and are currently updating our advice… including on face coverings” – which does rather sound like the DfE press office had notes from last week rather than a real response to the UCU concerns.

UCU’s “key negotiating objectives for branches” include full consultation with UCU, no default face-to-face teaching, compulsory facemasks in indoor spaces, widely available sanitising stations and facility cleaning regimes and “suitable and sufficient risk assessments” for staff working on campus, as well as social distancing of two metres (unless otherwise specified and sufficiently risk assessed).

Testing and tracing also forms an important component of the brief – it says that ideally, testing should be provided through university-based testing facilities, and if not should be done through existing community-based, health service, or public health agency provided testing facilities.

Details of testing and monitoring regimes should be “determined in advance of campus opening”, should be “subject to consultation with UCU and other recognised trade unions”, and there need to be processes in place for “contact tracing where a student or member of staff tests positive for Covid-19”, as well as “provision for isolation/quarantine (on university premises if necessary, in the case of students living in university accommodation).”

Universities UK President Julia Buckingham said: “Universities tell us that many staff want to return to in-person teaching, research and other activities where it is safe and appropriate to do so and are mindful of the benefits of in-person teaching and support for students’ well-being and development”.

For the government, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay appeared on Times Radio. “I think universities like the rest of the economy need to come back… a blanket restriction on universities coming back would be both economically damaging, but more to the point we need the students to be able to pursue their careers and get back to normal”. Come on kids! Gert spending your student loan in Pret!

Throughout the UK, given some international students are already quarantining everything does feel late for new guidance or major changes of plan. It’s not clear when new advice might emerge from DfE, nor what might happen next in Wales – although multiple universities are telling us that they have been asked to provide “reassurances” on several issues to the Welsh Government. All eyes are now on Scotland on Tuesday for its revised guidance which we trailed here.

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