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UCU says University ignored Covid-19 experts

Academic’s union fears the health cost of blended learning

By: Jake Roslin

UCU picket in March 2020 - Photograph: Anttoni Numminen

In most media coverage of the pandemic’s impact on universities, focus has been on students – quality of learning, quality of experience. But the University of Aberdeen also has considerably more than 1,000 professors, lecturers, teaching assistants, laboratory, and other support staff who, their principal trade union UCU argues, are being overlooked. And many of them, they argue, are at much higher risk of contracting and transmitting the Coronavirus than students.

Over 700 of the academic staff are card-carrying members of the University and College Union (UCU), founded in 2006 as an amalgamation of earlier higher education unions. Others are members of other appropriate unions, some of none at all.

From a peak of influence in the mid-20th century, the power of trade unions, like student unions, has been in decline. This is largely due to what some would call anti-union legislation, such as the 2016 Trade Union Act, which hinders the work of unions. However, in higher education, political activism by staff and students alike seems somewhat resurgent. In particular, the UCU organised a series of strike days across the UK and at Aberdeen in November 2019 and February - March 2020, during which students and staff were asked not to cross picket lines at the entrances to campus, in support of the union’s campaign to improve pensions, pay and working conditions for their members This was accompanied by “action short of a strike” on other days, when members worked strictly to contract.

Some students were upset by the action, seeing it as an intrusion into their expensive tuition. Others were supportive, showing solidarity with their teachers, for instance via profile picture frames on social media.

To get an understanding of the current situation, the Gaudie interviewed Aberdeen UCU’s committee in late November 2020. In collective spirit, around twelve members provided this joint response. All are academic staff at the University.

Gaudie: How well does the UCU think the University of Aberdeen (UoA) has reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic compared to UK universities in general, and do your members feel safe teaching face-to-face classes?

UCU: ‘As with most universities in the UK, UoA ignored the advice from many epidemiological experts in deciding to press ahead with some on-campus teaching as part of a ‘blended learning’ approach. This was consistent with advice from government, and, going by the numbers who opted for blended learning rather than online-only, the wishes of many students. Just as with overall attitudes towards Covid-19, opinions differ widely about whether this was the correct decision, whether more could be done to manage risk (such as an in-house programme of asymptomatic testing as at some other universities) or to improve educational opportunities under the current constraints.

Some of the staff feel more at risk than others do about teaching on-campus, just as do some students. It’s a personal decision, reflecting personal circumstances. But it’s also important to remember that, overall, staff are more likely to be vulnerable to Covid: because they are older, or have closer contact with older relatives, or because they have children to care for. The University has not insisted that staff who feel vulnerable must work on campus (it’s not just about teaching, and many staff are in other unions or none at all) and, from what we can gather, has kept its word here. Many staff are working on-campus even though they thought the decision to persevere with blended learning was unwise because they feel that they must do the best they can for the students who have come to Aberdeen.’

Can you tell us something about the SAGE committee's role, and to what extent can the Government disregard its findings? Do you think first semester teaching should not have begun in person and students should not have travelled to university this academic year in the first place, especially given the SAGE statement issued 12 October 2020 was actually written on 21 September 2020?

‘Most of us are not epidemiologists, so we leave the thinking about Covid-19 to the experts in SAGE and its various feeder groups. As UCU and the National Union of Students point out in our recent joint statement, we are extremely concerned that the government ignored its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which advised that ‘all university and college teaching … be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential’, an action which prompted UCU to launch a judicial review. There’s obviously a case that universities should not have opened for on-campus teaching. We knew what had happened at some colleges in the US and the independent SAGE group had warned against it in the middle of August. We may never know the full cost of the government's decision to ignore SAGE's advice to move learning online, but we do know that infection rates have been up to seven times higher at universities than in surrounding areas, and we are now deep into a second Covid wave. Continuing in-person learning where it could reasonably be delivered remotely risks unnecessarily inflating infection rates around campus.’

Do you think the UCU's legal action as set out to the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson (Secretary of State for Education) will be successful, and what is the timescale?

‘We’re not lawyers either, so we can’t really comment on this.’

Do you think UoA has provided satisfactory online learning? Criticisms we have heard include that technology has not always worked, there is no unified approach between academic departments, students have felt “cheated” to be offered last year's lecture recordings (especially given levels of tuition fees), and that access to teaching staff is limited.

‘We know that some staff have put tutorials back to replace face-to-face lecture time that was lost to recordings, though uptake has been a bit patchy. Some have also added additional live seminars and help sessions (online and in-person) to increase engagement which would not otherwise have been available – so “contact” hours have actually gone up if you include recorded lectures. We do recognise that some staff and students dislike some aspects of online teaching. We also recognise that some staff are keen to return to working on campus and delivery of face-to-face teaching (subject to the appropriate measures to reduce risk such as distancing and ventilation in classrooms). We can’t do everything we used to do, how we used to do it. It’s not our fault and it’s not the University’s fault either. But it’s difficult to say just how good or bad the online experience overall is for students. It will vary, just as the on-campus experience did pre-Covid.

We did not have a unified approach before, and we will not now, just because different subjects have different requirements. Some things are difficult (e.g. computer training) if not impossible (e.g. field trips) to replicate online. Technology used to break down on-campus too, and many staff have been struggling with old laptops and poor internet connections just the same as students. Despite their already excessive workloads, many staff at all pay grades have put in extra hours to support students.’

Is there any solid evidence Covid-19 transmissions (student-student/student-staff) are happening during socially distanced seminars, labs etc, or is it perhaps more likely infections have transmitted when students have broken social rules, in particular mixing in halls, pubs etc?

‘There’s been much speculation, but, in short, no: there is no solid evidence of in-class transmission. We don’t have data on asymptomatic transmission, so we cannot be sure, but from what we know of confirmed cases, halls of residence may be more of [a] hot spot for transmission. Any contact with other people is potentially risky so we all have to follow the guidelines from SAGE in order to mitigate the risks as best we can.’

If students are sent home for the year, what is the UCU's stance on whether UoA should refund tuition and accommodation fees?

‘UCU are calling for no financial detriment to any student giving up accommodation, or choosing to defer or leave university. We are also calling for investment in digital technology so that this is not a barrier to accessing education. We are seeking urgent investment of resources so that students are offered a safe way to leave campus if they need or want to, and support, including mental health support and wellbeing resources. It is possible to deliver much education, learning and student support whilst working from home (for both students and staff), this should be the position right now, so students have a choice as to whether to stay in student accommodation, or if they wish and are able, to return to[the] family home.

UCU believes students should have more choice. It is possible to deliver much education, learning and student support whilst working from home (for both students and staff), this should be the position right now, so students have a choice as to whether to stay in student accommodation, or if they wish and are able, to return to family home etc. Students should not lose out on accommodation costs (the Scottish Government changed the law earlier in the pandemic so that should not be an issue). Students wishing to defer their course for a year should be able to do so without financial penalty.’

Finally, recent actions by the UCU have seen notable support from students on social media. If the union’ position on Covid-19 is indeed contrary* to the preferences of the average student who made it to Aberdeen this year, could this not weaken this solidarity? Freshers are seeing the quality of their university experience reduced compared to previous cohorts – should the UCU not help them have as ‘normal’ a campus experience as possible?

‘UCU’s official position is just the same as that of the National Union of Students: that to promote the health and safety of students, staff and the wider community, universities should move to online learning wherever possible. This is a collective position of solidarity, although it’s not necessarily what all the staff that UCU represent and all the students that NUS represent want. We think it’s important to be realistic. The world is in the middle of the biggest medical crisis for a hundred years, so things are going to be a long way from anything like normal, and probably will be for some time. We realise that many students feel hard done by – but, until/unless the governments change their mind – higher education currently enjoys exemptions from constraints imposed elsewhere, such as greater freedom to mix with others. And as Covid numbers rise everywhere, we all have to adjust our expectations downwards once again, and perhaps consider what we can do – even if it involves some personal sacrifice – to promote the wellbeing of all.

There’s a lot of support and joint working between UCU and NUS at UK and Scottish levels. We have regular meetings with Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland president too. We all want to keep students and staff safe. It’s a shame there’s a narrative which sees online learning as somehow inferior. Staff are putting considerable time, effort and resources into delivering quality online learning. We need to ensure more support for staff to do this, and that students have the facilities (devices, space, wifi etc.) to participate effectively.’

*The interview was carried out prior to results of a Gaudie poll which found, from 83 social media respondents, 53 supported UCU’s position of stopping face-to-face teaching now, with 30 preferring blended learning to continue.


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