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Covid-19 HE

University staff support cautious start to term and demand action on excessive workloads

17 August 2021
  • 76% of university staff have seen an increase in workload since September 2020
  • 86.5% want enhanced ventilation on campus, with overwhelming staff support for more safety measures including use of face coverings, enhanced cleaning and reduced occupancy of buildings and rooms

Ahead of the start of the academic year, a new report from UCU Scotland has underlined staff support for a cautious start to the new university term, and for action to address increasingly excessive workloads.

The report collected the survey responses of almost one thousand university workers across Scotland. The union said the report demonstrated the impact the pandemic had on higher education in the last academic year, and outlines staff priorities for safe learning this coming year.

Over three quarters of university staff (76%) reported an increase in workload in the last academic year, highlighting how staff bore the brunt of the overnight pivot to online working and the increased pressures and demands of virtual learning, especially for staff delivering teaching and research in universities. One in four staff members reported their workload increasing by more than a fifth. The survey shows that action to reduce excessive workloads is the biggest issue for university workers, and they want support from their employers to address this.

The union said that the report also highlighted the demand for a safety first approach to the new term, to avoid the disruption of last year and to keep all students and staff safe. University staff are calling for:

  • enhanced ventilation - 86.5% of staff want better ventilation on campus
  • face coverings indoors - 78.5% of staff support continuation of face coverings
  • regular enhanced cleaning (supported by 71.2%) and enhanced hand hygiene/readily available hand sanitiser (demanded by 74.5%)
  • reduced occupancy of buildings/rooms - called for by 68.6% of staff
  • larger classes delivered remotely where possible - demanded by 58.8% of workers.

76% of staff reported that their anxiety levels had increased during the pandemic with 41% saying they felt some anxiety about returning to normal. The union said it is absolutely vital that a range of safety mitigations are in place to ease the anxiety of staff and students, to keep everyone safe, and ensure that further disruption is avoided.

UCU has previously set out its five education recovery principles, and has been working with the Scottish government and employers via the Adult Learning Covid Recovery Group over recent months. The five principles are:

  1. there should be a clear focus on consistent high-quality education provision for all, avoiding the disruption experienced last year.
  2. there should be a clear focus on ensuring health and safety of all staff in the post-16 education sector
  3. the physical and mental health of all students is of vital importance
  4. education settings should not become centres of community Covid transmission
  5. adequate funding must be made available.

Speaking about the report UCU's Scotland official, Mary Senior, said: 'Our report underlines the need for a cautious, safety first start to the new academic year. UCU has been working with government, employers and NUS to ensure campus re-openings are as safe as possible to protect students and staff, and it is welcome that the guidance for universities in Scotland does recognise the Covid challenges. Today we are urging employers to go even further to take on board the concerns of staff on ventilation, reduced occupancy and enhanced cleaning and hygiene - and importantly to continue with online working where appropriate and especially for larger groups. We're calling on government and employers to do more on ventilation - including capital investment in estates where ventilation is poor, to keep students and staff safe for the long term.

'Members have also told us that their stress and anxiety has increased during the pandemic, and that over four in ten of them are anxious about returning to in-person working. On top of this their workloads have increased exponentially over the past year. We want employers to recognise and work with us to address these issues, to support university staff in these challenging weeks and months - and to continue to support remote working and blended learning. The teaching and learning environment for students depends upon the people delivering that, so it is in employers' interests to support their staff at this time.'

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