Can we teach face to face this semester?

UCU’s General Secretary Jo Grady has released a statement calling for the default for teaching in the autumn to be on-line. This is the right thing to do. Finally, the press have woken up to the emergent problems of one million students moving around the UK in the coming weeks.

We should be clear with our employer that the safe maximum time for people to be in an enclosed space must be limited to around 20 minutes with on-line teaching and support activities. This is going to be necessary for the first semester/term of this academic year. What face to face (f2f) teaching does take place will have to be almost completely limited to practice-based activities such as in health or lab-based disciplines. Similarly, in student support what f2f activities can take place must be severely limited by social distancing requirements.

Why this is contentious is that universities are promoting f2f activities to students as a pretence to force them to pay accommodation fees. Universities have contracted with private providers of student accommodation and will have to pay penalties if that accommodation is not filled. Universities contracting for guaranteed occupancy rates of 99% are not uncommon and are one of the largest potential losses they face as a result of the covid-19 crisis.

The real question is not will on-line teaching take place in semester/term 1 but how do universities protect the quality of teaching and support when it moves on-line? The truth is universities are not putting the necessary resources into on-line provision for the simple reason that high quality on-line provision isn’t cheap. We need much smaller groups and more intensive interaction with students in any on-line environment. The Open University has been the leader in this provision for decades. It is not an accident that they employ thousands of associate lecturers to work on a one-to-one basis with students. Yet the f2f universities have been doing the opposite and making thousands of staff redundant over the summer.

While we are campaigning, and yes, fighting for safe return to campus working we need also to fight for precarious colleagues. Some of whom have spent the summer worrying about job security and whether their contracts have ended. We have to stand by our colleagues who stood by us in 2018, 2019, 2020 when we took industrial action over the USS and 4 fights campaigns. We know that some of the most precarious staff joined our union to fight for us now we have to fight for them. There is much talk of growing the union’s membership – the way we do this is to demonstrate that we represent all of our members.

There is also the issue of public safety with the return to campus. Students want to attend universities but this can only happen if the level of support is there to ensure they can do so safely. A large secondary school has c. 2,000 students attending, yet a large university has more than ten times that figure.

 Universities are hiding behind government guidelines rather than treating them as the minimum they should be doing. While local authority and health services can do testing universities themselves are in the best position to do the tracing. Universities not only know where a student who tests positive lives, but already has their phone, email and home details. They also know all the individuals they live with in halls of residence. Most universities now use swipe card access for libraries and many other buildings.

This information not only tells you which building a student has been in but what time they were there and every single other person there at the key time. None of this is available to non-university tracing organisations yet it already exists. They share this type of information with the home office and police to monitor international students but not to protect student health. In-house university tracing would help prevent individual cases leading to larger outbreaks. But rather than stepping up the safety for student managements are putting in place sets of behaviours which, even if followed, will not prevent cases with students themselves then being blamed.

UCU has to campaign for the maximum level of on-line provision, the maximum level of protection for students and staff. Outsourcing contracts of all types should be ended and a whole new layer of teaching and support staff need to be recruited, on permanent contracts, to deliver on-line provision. Government and universities have to put the resources into this to make it work and for that the marketisation of Higher Education has to end.

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