The UCU should not see students merely as carriers of the coronavirus

The shielding of the academic workplace from all risk of Covid-19 is not a safe or sane position, says Robert Poole

September 9, 2020
social distancing sign
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During the summer, my university in the north of England has been making impressive efforts to make its campuses Covid-secure, while assessing the individual risks to every member of staff and deploying them accordingly, in a speedily revised timetable.

All this has been done in full consultation with the local branch of the University and College Union – my union – which is fully supportive of the results. Then, just as we are about to welcome our students back with confidence, the UCU general secretary Jo Grady announced to the nation that none of this should be happening at all and that all UK campuses should remain closed at least until Christmas.

Grady’s unprofessional posture is accompanied by the UCU’s official guidance on reopening university campuses. In this deplorable document, the union depicts students only as vectors of disease. Interpreting the most pessimistic elements of past advice in the most timid way possible, the UCU insists that “all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work”.

At best, it adds, any campuses that do reopen should become super-protected bubbles of compulsory mask-wearing and two-metre social distancing, with students kept away from staff and and each other as far as possible. The union proposes five tests for reopening, the killer being that if infection levels rise, no matter how low the absolute level or how limited the health effects, campuses should immediately close again.

Where in this dismal landscape is our once proud commitment to our students, to our vital role in training health and education professionals, and to the value of our research? Where is our confidence in the importance of the university sector to the economy and society, especially at this time of crisis? Where is our commitment as educators and citizens to supporting our recovery from the necessary but ruinous lockdown?  

Where is there any acknowledgement of the damage to students caused by the loss of their education and the social experience of university at this formative stage of their lives? Or the loss of the all-important cultural experience of overseas students? Or the entitlement of postgraduate students in particular to face-to-face supervision?

Where is the acceptance, moreover, of the fact that Covid-19 poses very little serious risk to young people, or to the majority of university staff? Or that the UK lockdown ended nearly three months ago, and that students might reasonably wonder why it should endure on campus even after younger siblings have returned to school?

The UCU leadership appears to have forgotten every word it has ever proclaimed about the value of the university experience and its members’ commitment to it. It has retreated to an instrumental view of university education as a mere transfer of information that might as well happen online, in or out of a university setting. The shielding of the workplace from all risk of disease trumps every other consideration. This is not a safe or sane position for academics to adopt.

It is also hypocritical, for we all know that if any of these costs were to be felt in academic jobs, income or pensions, the same UCU executive would be issuing red-fisted posters calling for yet another ballot for strike action against – what? A virus?

Of course we must ensure that vulnerable individuals are protected, and we need local plans to contain any resurgence of the virus. Of course we must all care for each other and behave responsibly, encouraging our students by example to do the same. But the converse of minimising the risks is that life can go on. And yes, libraries need to reopen, for browsing and reading and working, not just for the delivery of pre-ordered books in sterile wrappings. It would be wise to remind students that when we told them that they needed to read, we weren’t making it up.

Universities are facing a severe financial crisis, accompanied by a loss of confidence in their value, which feels close to a tipping point. If the UCU does not quickly recover its commitment to the value of the university experience, it will find itself with a lot more to worry about than catching a virus.  

This, of course, is already the case for many of our students. Not the least of the ironies of this situation is that by the time universities have developed a vaccine for the coronavirus, most of their students may, at surprisingly little cost to their own health or to the NHS, have caught it and become immune. Then, perhaps, we can all feel a little safer.

Robert Poole is professor of history at the University of Central Lancashire.

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Reader's comments (10)

Another reason why I do not waste my money on a union that espouses many extreme and unhelpful positions, often taking a very left-leaning and backward-looking stance.
The UCU has shown caution and simply agreed with independent Sage recommendations, which in themselves are not so far off Sage's recent recommendations. It's important that someone voices a view that online only until Xmas will result in fewer infections, and not a potential surge affecting campuses and local towns. As for the concluding point, how does the author know staff or students who catch the virus are then "immune"? Whether the author agrees or not, all the unions, UCU, Unison, student unions and local bodies all have a voice but they have different groups to represent. Attacking one of them doesn't help.
If you do not find advice - irrespective of source - relevant and helpful, ignore it.
Oh good, a professor of history is now an expert in epidemiology. Well done.
He is entitled to his opinion - like the rest of us!
A professor of history should know better than to argue using false dichotomies. The authors asks "Where in this dismal landscape is our once proud commitment to our students [?]". But it is perfectly possible to believe that all the things the author list are important, but not AS important as the continued heath and well being of students, staff an the local community. The author accuses the Union of taking an "instrumental view of university education as a mere transfer of information that might as well happen online, in or out of a university setting.", but provides no evidence that the view is instrumental. The choices are not between online and the normal delivery, but between bespoke online and a much restricted, sub-optimal in person delivery, where seminars are given for 20 students, wearing masks in a lecture theater designed for 200. The author states "students might reasonably wonder why it should endure on campus even after younger siblings have returned to school", but in the city where my university is situated, after only 8 days back, every single school in the city has already had to close to at least one year group. Every. Single. One. The story is the same in the US, where almost all universities that reopened to students were closed again within a month. We know that our bosses expect this by the way so many are being told to prepare material for online delivery as well as in person. Nobody pretends that the experience that we can deliver online is as good as the in person experience, but it a case of balancing costs and benefits, and in this time its the best we can do, and better than nothing.
Online, blended, hybrid learning will stay, whatever happens to COVID. It is better to learn how to teach that way, so one can deliver lectures that are meaningful and thought provoking. Online teaching is more challenging than in-class teaching. Universities will have to deliver quality if they want to succeed in that area. I find online degrees a very welcome addition. The degrees in my opinion do not necessarily have to be granted by a traditional university. I would like more options here. COVID is finally disrupting the traditional university. It might be bad for some lecturers and fields in the short term. But administrators and government assessment already destroyed traditional academia.
I'm sure many seeing this will be confused as to whom to support, so I'll throw this in the ring first As a Trades Union H&S rep who has been working through lockdown in a research dept, doing the basic stuff marking one-way systems inside out building and all the rest I've seen how seriously COVID safety was taken initially, now it's a joke, with people ignoring the H&S rules they've signed agreements to follow to gain access. Many senior staff haven't even been to campus since March, their planning has been entirely on-line, so all they know is the biased feedback they get from the usual brown nosed forelock tuggers, and their only concern is keeping the business people on the governing body happy, the bottom line is everything for too many. Much though I find Jo annoying at times she is right, the sector is rushing into a situation they cannot control, and we won't come out of this well, members are already reporting concerns about their own health when, not if, COVID infection spread starts growing on campus, but the bigger worry is now their neighbours reaction to it and the reputational damage not just to the body corporate, but to the staff as well.
We are going to have to find ways of living with COVID. There is bound to be increased transmission when students return to campus. However it is a disgrace that UCU's press statement on 30 August stated that universities would be the new care homes, just to grab a headline. Is UCU really expecting 20,000 excess deaths on campus this term? This sort of nonsense is off putting to students and therefore puts members' jobs at risk. I thought that UCU was in the business of protecting jobs?
When someone writes that "most of their students may, at surprisingly little cost to their own health or to the NHS, have caught it and become immune" you expect him to be a professor of fairy stories and urban myths not history. I suggest that he sticks to subjects that he knows about, because disease control is clearly not one of them.


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