Union threatens strike action to stop return to ‘unsafe’ university campuses

The University and College Union said moves to restart face-to-face teaching this academic year were ‘impractical’.

Student online lessons
Student online lessons

Universities could face strike action if staff are asked to resume “unsafe” in-person teaching this academic year, a union has warned.

The University and College Union (UCU) said online learning should remain in place to protect staff, students and communities.

It said moves to restart face-to-face teaching this academic year were “impractical” amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The union warned it was willing to ballot members on industrial action if they felt their wellbeing was being put at risk.

The UCU said university staff cannot do their jobs in “unsafe and unpredictable working conditions”, with some already “burnt out” by the demands imposed on them.

The union said its branches at Northumbria University and Birmingham City University had already held ballots for industrial action over in-person working, with another at Manchester Metropolitan University due to close next week.

Under the current lockdown in England, university students, who were allowed to travel home before Christmas, are not permitted to return to campus and are expected to study from their current residence.

In-person teaching can only take place for a small number of critical courses, including medicine, dentistry, teacher training, veterinary science and social work.

According to Department for Education guidance published this month, all other courses should be delivered online “until at least mid-February”.

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.”

She said the UCU was prepared to work with universities in calling on the Government to refund students the costs of “lost accommodation” as well as “underwriting the other extra costs which universities are facing this year”.

Figures released under freedom of information requests revealed this month that universities are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds each on additional measures due to Covid-19, with Kingston University forking out £1 million on hardship funds and bursaries for students.

A spokesman for Universities UK said: “The safety of our students and staff is our top priority and universities continue to follow the latest government guidance.

“In making a decision on when all students can return to university, governments across the UK have to consider the rapidly changing public health situation and the mental health consequences for students unable to attend university.

“Universities tell us that many staff look forward to returning to in-person teaching, research and other activities as soon as it is safe and are mindful of the benefits of in-person teaching and support for students’ wellbeing, education and development.”

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