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UCU threatens industrial action to prevent unsafe campus return this academic year

17 January 2021 | last updated: 18 January 2021

UCU called for university teaching to remain online for the rest of the academic year to protect the well-being of staff, students and their communities. It said:

  • UCU members remain committed to providing the very best for their students during the pandemic, but cannot do this in unsafe and unpredictable working conditions
  • university staff are already burnt out from meeting the demands imposed on them, and must be supported to continue giving students the best possible remote learning experience
  • where universities do not work collaboratively with UCU branches to prioritise staff safety, the union will continue to support branches that ballot members for action against an unsafe return to in-person teaching.

UCU believes any return to in-person teaching this academic year is impractical due to the Covid-19 pandemic being at its worst stage since March 2020. The union also pointed to regulator concerns over the type of tests the government intends to use to reopen campuses, and delays in the government's mass vaccination programme, as further evidence that a rushed return could compromise safety.

The union said that university staff have faced unmanageable workloads over the past year trying to adapt teaching for both in-person and online provision, and said a clear decision now that the majority of courses will remain online for the rest of the academic year would allow staff to plan accordingly. UCU said that if university management and the government do not provide this certainty it will support members to fight to stay working remotely off campus, including balloting for industrial action.

The Westminster government has said the majority of courses must be taught online until at least mid-February. The union said ministers should go further and tell universities to extend online teaching to the end of the academic year, and give universities the financial security needed to put health and safety ahead of business as usual.

UCU branches at Northumbria  and Birmingham City universities have already held successful ballots for industrial action over in-person working, with the union seeking to minimise on-campus working and ensure that all work is done remotely where possible. Another ballot at Manchester Metropolitan University will close next week, and other branches are making similar arrangements. 

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 well-being 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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