Universities should be teaching all classes online or lecturers may go on strike, union warns

university students with teacher in a seminar

Union wants all learning to stay online until regular testing is universally available

Students should be taking all their classes online until regular Covid-19 testing is available for everyone – otherwise universities risk facing staff strikes over workplace safety, the University and College Union (UCU) has said.

“Workplaces should be made safe before we can move to reopening large scale, face-to-face teaching,” the UCU head of higher education, Paul Bridge, told the Sunday Times, adding that the union would consider asking its members to vote on industrial action if safety measures are not taken.

“Moving a million plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave,” UCU’s general secretary Jo Grady has previously said.

“It is time for the government to finally take some decisive and responsible action in this crisis and tell universities to abandon plans for face-to-face teaching.

“We need to move all teaching online for the first term of the new academic year, as recommended by Independent Sage, and the government needs to underwrite any lost funding for the sector.

“Students will also need financial support to ensure that they can participate fully in online learning ” Grady commented. 

At the end of last year, students were hit with weeks of strikes and industrial action over changes to university staff pensions and issues around pay and working conditions. These strikes led to students calling to be compensated for the disruption caused to their degrees.

A second wave of staff walkouts in February and March 2020 ended slightly earlier than planned when university campuses were closed down to help slow the spread of coronavirus and all teaching was moved online for the rest of the academic year.

At the time, Grady said that “we won’t escalate our disputes during the pandemic – but we won’t abandon them either”.

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university students wearing face masks in a lecture hall

Covid-19 outbreaks at universities are “highly likely”

University campuses are set to reopen for the new academic year, with most offering a combination of in-person teaching and online classes.

In practice, for many this will mean that large lectures stay online while smaller tutorial groups may meet up for face-to-face lessons.

But universities are “highly likely” to have “significant outbreaks” of coronavirus, a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) report has warned.

This is partly because lots of students will be moving around the country in time for the start of term, creating a “critical risk” of “a large number of infected students seeding outbreaks across the UK, influencing national transmission,” the report said. 

The report recommended that universities could carry out regular testing for Covid-19 and have as little face-to-face teaching as possible to try to reduce the risks of outbreaks.

It also suggested that face masks should be worn on campus, universities should have special accommodation just for students who need to self-isolate and that students should be involved in drawing up the safety rules.

Speaking about the Sage report,  Grady commented that “we welcome the recommendations for better testing and tracing, and for universities to work with staff and students on guidance.

“This report adds further weight to our call that online teaching must be universities' default position. What we really need now is a serious response from universities and government.

“The health of university staff, students and the wider community is too important to gamble with, this is not business as usual,” Grady finished.

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student working on laptop

Risk that some students may be left behind by online teaching

Either way, for most university students at least part of their course will happen virtually – which could be tricky for many.

Over a quarter (27%) of university students could not access online learning while campuses were closed, a survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) has found.

Reasons included a lack of access to a laptop or the right software, as well as a poor internet connection.

The Office for Students (OfS) recently launched a review of digital teaching and learning in English higher education, which will cover the impact of digital poverty on university students.

“Improving equality of opportunity for students from all backgrounds is central to our work. We have already set universities and colleges ambitious targets on improving access for disadvantaged students and progress is being made,” commented Michael Barber, chair of the OfS.

“But as digital teaching and learning is increasingly embedded in higher education, we cannot risk students being left behind in the rush for online innovation. 

“That is why I have put an examination of the impact of digital poverty at the heart of this review and will ensure that the recommendations we make will have student access at their core,” Barber said.

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