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UCU and the National Union Students issue joint statement calling for action over university Covid crisis

1 October 2020

In a joint statement*, UCU and the National Union of Students (NUS) have called for online working, students to be allowed to return home if they wish and funding guarantees to safeguard universities' finances and protect jobs.

The statement calls for:

  • a national test and trace system for universities
  • a safe way for students to leave campus if they need or want to
  • n financial detriment to any student giving up accommodation, or choosing to defer or leave university
  • move to online learning wherever possible
  • guaranteed funding for universities to help them deal with any shortfall or additional expenses due to Covid-19.

The statement comes after education secretary Gavin Williamson made the 'clearly wrong' claim that universities were well prepared to deal with the current pandemic. UCU wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday to urge him to make online learning universities' default position, protect students' education and stop any further damage to community health.

Professor Mark Woodhouse, from the government's pandemic modelling group, has said that the current crisis was not only 'entirely predictable', but that modelling showed halls of residences and in-person teaching were areas of risk.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'Ministers need to act now and tell universities to halt in-person teaching where possible and move the majority of work online, in line with other workplaces.

'They also have to guarantee funding for universities to safeguard institutions' finances and protect jobs. If the government had followed our advice and made that clear financial commitment, universities could have spent the summer studying the science, working on a consensus about when to restart and, crucially, prepare properly for this term.

'Ministers government got in wrong at the start of this crisis. They need to act quickly now and not get it wrong a second time.'

NUS president Larissa Kennedy said: 'It is wholly unforgiveable that students continue to be punished for the government's failure to keep students, staff and communities safe. Our education system is broken - time and again it prioritises profit over people. Over the past few months, students have repeatedly been encouraged to move, ensuring that universities and accommodation companies could collect tuition fees and rent whilst leaving thousands of students trapped in halls, with many struggling to access food, basic amenities and wellbeing resources. The ongoing uncertainty students face is exacerbating poor mental health, debt and needlessly puts lives at risk. Put simply - students deserve better.'

 

*Full statement

The University and College Union and National Union of Students are disappointed that representations from ourselves, from Independent SAGE, the Government's own advisors and others around the sector are still being ignored - despite around 50 outbreaks of Covid-19 on campuses before teaching has started in many universities.

We are not prepared to take chances with the health and safety of students, staff or local communities and neither should Government or vice chancellors.

UCU and NUS are therefore demanding that the Westminster Government take urgent action to support and protect staff and students on our campuses and the wider communities that they serve.

We recognise the need to keep universities open, but campus life needs a radical overhaul to keep us all safe and limit in person contact. Those currently working and studying in our universities need a national strategy that fully recognises this risk, moves teaching online for the duration of this term, and ensures students can safely return home where possible.

Students must not be forced to quarantine in halls of residence with no familiar support network, pastoral care and more serious restrictions than the rest of society. Staff must not be forced to carry out work on site that could be conducted more safely from home. Students must be allowed to safely return home if they wish to, without fear of financial penalty for leaving their student accommodation.

Ministers need to act now to prevent more students feeling forced to move onto campus and issue clear guidance to move as much work as possible online, in line with other workplaces.

There must also be guarantees around funding for universities to safeguard institutions' finances and protect jobs. If the Government had made that financial commitment at the start of this pandemic then universities could have spent the summer studying the science, working on a consensus about when and how to restart and, crucially, preparing properly for this inevitable crisis.

Instead this Government's failures meant that universities competed against each other for students and spent the summer talking up a student experience that was never going to be able to be delivered.

UCU and NUS have been inundated with examples of students being unable to get food, unable to access mental health services, unable to access online courses and unable to leave their accommodation as they are trapped in a rent contract.

From a staff perspective we are seeing reports of staff being told to work whilst they are sick, instructed to return to campus without full risk assessments, staff being told to continue face to face teaching despite outbreaks in other parts of the university as well as many #HygieneTheatre examples of universities not managing to enable safe workplaces.

Professor Mark Woodhouse, from the government's pandemic modelling group, said that the current crisis was not only "entirely predictable", but that modelling showed halls of residences, first year students and in person teaching were areas of risk.

The Government must explain why that modelling was ignored and why students and staff as well as the general public were put at risk in this way.

UCU and NUS will be working together sharing #HygieneTheatre stories and campaigning for students and staff to be kept safe and treated with dignity. We will continue to make representations locally and nationally to ensure this Government and universities to put the public health crisis and safety of people above profit and the marketisation of our education system.

At the bare minimum the Government needs to:

  1. Urgently coordinate a national test and trace system for universities on campus
  2. Enable a safe way for students to leave campus if they need or want to
  3. Ensure no financial detriment to any student giving up accommodation places or choosing to defer or leave university
  4. Move to online learning wherever possible
  5. Guarantee  for universities to help them deal with any shortfall or additional expenses due to Covid.

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