Survey: most university staff feel unsafe returning to campus

Fewer than one in three respondents happy with measures taken to protect employees’ well-being as in-person teaching resumes in major sectors

September 16, 2021
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Barely one in four staff feel safe returning to campus as universities resume in-person teaching this autumn, according to a global survey conducted by Times Higher Education.

In the poll, completed by 535 academics and higher education professionals, 53 per cent of respondents said that they did not feel safe returning to face-to-face teaching or on-campus working while coronavirus case numbers remained high.

Only 28 per cent of respondents said that they did feel safe, with 19 per cent unsure.

A significant majority of respondents to the survey, which was open between 6 and 13 September, were from the UK. There, with average daily case rates in excess of 30,000 and the average daily death count above 100, universities are promising as much in-person teaching as possible, although many institutions are keeping large-scale lectures online.

In the THE survey, 78 per cent of respondents said they felt that returning to in-person teaching would lead to a spike in coronavirus cases in their area, a scenario that is already playing out on some US campuses where teaching has resumed.

THE return to campus survey results. Graphs showing how safe people feel about in-person teaching and a spike in coronavirus

Ninety-six per cent of survey respondents said that they would be fully vaccinated by the time term started, but inoculation rates are typically much lower in younger age groups; in the UK, more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds are yet to have two jabs.

Asked whether they were satisfied with the steps that their university had taken to ensure a safe start to the academic year, 45 per cent were dissatisfied and 24 per cent were unsure. Only 31 per cent were satisfied.

Many UK universities have switched to encouraging the wearing of face coverings on campus, rather than mandating them, and institutions in the country have not followed the lead of some US colleges that have introduced vaccine mandates for students and staff – although these have in turn been forbidden by some Republican governors.

Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University, said that “while vaccination rates are excellent, the UK is starting this new academic year with far more cases compared with autumn 2020”.

Professor Stokoe, the author of a report on universities and Covid-19 published this month by the Independent Sage group of scientists, said that there was a “lack of clarity” from the Westminster government on key issues such as phasing term start dates, face coverings and ventilation.

“Staff and students alike should be supported to make choices that keep them physically and psychologically well, such as genuine flexibility and avoiding presenteeism,” said Professor Stokoe.

“Furthermore, as the engine rooms of Covid-19 science and policy advice, universities should be leading the way for other workplaces and educational settings as models of good and safe practice.”

Vice-chancellors have repeatedly said that lecturers are keen to return to face-to-face teaching but this was not overwhelmingly backed up by the survey results, with only 25 per cent of respondents saying they were excited to return to in-person teaching or on-campus working. Forty-three per cent said that they were not excited, with 27 per cent “a little” excited.

However, there were clear signs of a shift towards flexible working in academia, with 62 per cent of respondents saying that their university was offering greater hybrid working options compared with before the pandemic.

The US was an exception to this, with only a quarter of respondents from the country reporting a move in this direction, and this could be a factor in US respondents being more likely to say that they felt unsafe returning to campus, with 68 per cent giving this response. Sixty-two per cent of US respondents were dissatisfied with the steps that their university had taken to keep them safe.

Across all countries, respondents from the 18-34 age group were most likely to be dissatisfied with their university’s preparations for the new term, with 55 per cent unhappy, compared with only 38 per cent of 51- to 64-year-olds.

In comments, many respondents said that a lack of clarity played a big part in their nervousness. “The university hasn’t actually communicated with staff about the measures that are in place,” one wrote. “Lack of transparency on air quality monitoring and ventilation is making me nervous,” another said.

There were some who were keen to get back. “Let’s get back to face to face teaching. It’s what the students want,” one respondent said. But most comments reflected the overall results. “I understand the need to get back to some in-person teaching but I would be hugely more comfortable if the government mandated mask-wearing in all classes and communal areas,” another said.

Many of those who commented felt that the return policy was being “driven by the optics…rather than by the lived experience and concerns of the staff”, as one put it. “‘Back to normal’ has been embraced at all costs to justify the high student fees,” another said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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16 September

Reader's comments (9)

Can I just ask why these academics feel they are special or different ? Is it because of their education, pay grade or organisational or societal status ? At the height of the pandemic, when testing was hard to obtain and the vaccine had not been rolled out (or even proven effective) , thousands of cleaning staff, maintenance staff and security staff were going into work and also dealing with the thousands of infected students who were marooned in halls. For 18 months many academics sat at home working remotely. This is the real world and it is incredibly elitist and divisive to suggest that their concerns (in a world where most people interacting will be vaccinated and the precaution and testing available are in full swing) weigh more heavily than those who have worked on the frontline. It absolutely stinks. They really need to take a long hard look at themselves and understand that getting back to work as we live with this disease, means just that. Back to work and positively contribute and help manage how we do this as safely as possible.
"Do you feel safe" isn't quite the right question. We can never be 100% safe against covid, or indeed any other infectious virus. Better to ask "do you think it's the right thing to return to face to face teaching?"
As someone who filled out the questionnaire and has no problem returning to campus, I can only agree with the points made by cactus77. I am only "vulnerable" due to age (I am 58) and do not have any other health conditions. Driving my car regularly is probably more dangerous than returning to campus and the mental health impact of the pandemic has become greater than the perceived risk from COVID-19. I am very aware of my mortality as I approach retirement but am not prepared just to exist isolated from many colleagues and the students when we have to get to a situation where COVID-19 is endemic but not dangerous. Personally, I do not worry, having been brought low as a child by the measles, which is much worse for most of us than this current virus. If the NHS can cope, there is no number of daily cases that would prompt me to reinstate the previous restrictions.
I completely agree. And that's an excellent point about isolation.
I agree with the comments above that we need to have some perspective. However, "getting back to work" is a bit of an insult to those academics who kept working full time during the pandemic, just not face-to-face. If anything, many of them clocked in even more hours to convert teaching material for remote delivery (not always a quick and easy thing to do!) or put in plance contingency plans for research projects, PhD projects... while of course, still providing support, tutoring, and pastoral care to students. We should stop assuming some people have been on holiday for 17 months.
Nobody is expecting be 100% safe, but what is wrong with mitigating the risk of infection? Is it such a sacrifice to wear a mask when it might protect more vulnerable people from serious or chronic illness, or death? Universities could reduce transmission on campus and in the community if, say, staff and students were advised to self-isolate and get a PCR test if they display current predominant symptoms in the region (cold/flu-like symptoms - sore/dry throat, sneezing, runny nose, headache, anosmia). Unfortunately and inexplicably, NHS/Govt advice is months out of date on this. Why shouldn’t universities protect the health and well being of students and staff by adequately ventilating classrooms in line with scientific advice? If we proceed with a little more caution now, we may prevent further illness, bereavement and lockdowns later.
Nobody is expecting be 100% safe, but what is wrong with mitigating the risk of infection? Is it such a sacrifice to wear a mask when it might protect more vulnerable people from serious or chronic illness, or death? Universities could reduce transmission on campus and in the community if, say, staff and students were advised to self-isolate and get a PCR test if they display current predominant symptoms in the region (cold/flu-like symptoms - sore/dry throat, sneezing, runny nose, headache, anosmia). Unfortunately and inexplicably, NHS/Govt advice is months out of date on this. Why shouldn’t universities protect the health and well being of students and staff by adequately ventilating classrooms in line with scientific advice? If we proceed with a little more caution now, we may prevent further illness, bereavement and lockdowns later.
Cactus77 seems to have entirely missed the point. Many staff, including academics working in research labs, were coming into campus during lockdowns, and working safely because proper precautions were followed. Now staff and students are being required to work and study in unsafe conditions. Masks merely "encouraged" (and teaching staff forbidden to wear them in some cases), no social distancing, little serious attention paid to vaccination, little serious effort on testing, .... And students coming from all over the country and all over the world, and mingling socially in large groups. This is dangerous for students, staff and local communities. But staff who are heavily student-facing roles and who are older or have clinical vulnerabilities are most at risk, and vaccination is no guarantee against long covid, hospitalisation or death.
To reply to Cactus77, academics are not special or different, like all staff we whether professional services, estates, teaching, whatever; we are employees and have a legal right to a safe place of work. That safety is being compromised. Academic work is not A&E, it's a job. If we take risks now with one million students moving around the country, students who will inevitably socialise as students do, crowded lecture theatres and so on, we will see rising infection rates and possibly serious consequences.

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