Keep teaching online-only until Christmas, says UK academic union

UCU warns that reopening of campuses next month could drive a surge in coronavirus cases, making universities the ‘care homes of a second wave’

August 30, 2020
Empty classroom
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The UK’s largest academic union has urged universities to scrap plans to reopen their campuses next month, warning that failing to do so could fuel a surge in coronavirus cases.

The University and College Union said teaching should remain online-only until Christmas, amid fears that the migration of more than 1?million students around the country could turn higher education institutions into the “care homes of a second wave”.

The union claimed that the push to reopen campuses was being driven by financial concerns and called on the government to step in and underwrite any lost funding for the sector.

The reopening of campuses in the US has been seen as driving spikes in Covid-19 cases, with many institutions choosing to swiftly revert back to online-only.

Most UK universities plan to conduct large lectures online, but hope to do teaching in smaller groups face-to-face. Many have highlighted the safety measures that they have introduced, such as social distancing on campuses and in classrooms and mandatory mask-wearing in communal areas.

However, in the US it has often been students’ out-of-class socialising that has been seen driving infection rates.

The UCU said the reopening of campuses in the UK was likely to result in local lockdowns and the moving of classes online, and that it was “best to make that call now instead of [making] a U-turn”.

The union has issued new guidance on campus reopenings endorsing a report by the Independent Sage group of scientists, which called for teaching to stay online-only.

The UCU said all staff and students should be tested for Covid-19 before teaching gets under way, and that this should be repeated at regular intervals to identify potential outbreaks. It called for better contact tracing to be in place in case of infections on campus.

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said students’ arrival on campus was “a?recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave”.

“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,” Dr Grady said.

“Refusing to act now will only store up problems further down the line as courses are forced to move online and students forced into lockdown. It is no good blaming students later on for a problem that could have been avoided by government action.

“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.”

Julia Buckingham, president of Universities?UK, said universities had “invested considerable resource” in planning for the start of term, in consultation with staff and unions, “always focusing on the safety and well-being of university staff, students and the local community”.

“Universities tell us that many staff want to return to in-person teaching, research and other activities where it is safe and appropriate to do so and are mindful of the benefits of in-person teaching and support for students’ well-being and development,” Professor Buckingham said. “The dedication shown by staff throughout the lockdown and into recovery has been remarkable, and we hope that UCU will continue to engage constructively with university leaders as the sector prepares for the start of term.”

A Department for Education spokesman said the government was “confident that universities are well prepared for the return of students”.

“We support face-to-face teaching only where possible and if safety guidelines are followed, but know that high-quality online teaching can also be delivered if necessary,” the spokesman said.

“We are keeping our guidance under constant review, and are currently updating our advice on reopening higher education buildings and campuses to reflect the latest public health advice, including on face coverings, local lockdowns and test and trace.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Can't help but feel this is more about self-interest than altruism.

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