UCU threatens wider industrial action in bid to force move online

Unrest over return of face-to-face teaching on UK campuses pushes staff-management relations to breaking point

October 13, 2020
Frayed rope near to break
Source: iStock

Unions have threatened UK universities with a fresh wave of industrial action as unrest over the return to face-to-face teaching pushes workplace relations to breaking point.

Three branches of the University and College Union (UCU) – at the universities of Birmingham, Leeds and Warwick – have threatened industrial action if teaching is not moved online to help avoid the further spread of coronavirus.

A ballot on industrial action at Northumbria University, which recorded 1,179 coronavirus cases in the fortnight to 7 October, was averted when the institution shifted to online delivery for three weeks.

With Covid-19 cases now having been reported on more than 100 UK campuses, Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said that vice-chancellors must make online teaching the default because staff were “saying this is an unsafe working environment, the science says it’s unsafe, and we are going to ballot”.

This comes after 22 days of strikes across scores of campuses over pensions, pay and conditions in 2019-20.

“After an awful start to the year [with industrial action] there then was a summer of attacks on working conditions – cutting pay, reducing research time, increasing workloads and axeing staff on temporary and fixed-term contracts – and rather than try to rebuild that trust, they [university leaders] instructed staff to come back to unsafe working conditions,” Dr Grady said.

Growing numbers of universities shifted to largely online-only education in recent weeks, including institutions in Covid hot spots – for example, the three Liverpool universities – and institutions reporting growing case numbers among their staff and student communities, including the universities of Manchester and Sheffield, and Newcastle and Manchester Metropolitan universities.

One academic said that there was now “a growing realisation that management are willing to put our lives and health at risk”.

Another agreed that industrial relations were likely to get “a lot worse”. “This restart has gone badly wrong; people have had enough. It’s disintegrating the bonds between employer and employee,” they said.

The Unison union warned that the risk to support staff such as security and catering workers from contact with students was being overlooked, even as classes moved online or to socially distanced formats.

One security guard working at an English institution told Times Higher Education that colleagues who were shielding had been told last month that they must return to campus.

The security guard said that they had had to pick up students who were too drunk and take them back to their flats, without knowing whether they were meant to be in isolation.

“It feels like universities look after student welfare and not ours,” they said.

One vice-chancellor admitted that there had been “a relative lack of preparedness by university leaderships for students being in residence and wanting to meet each other and socialise”.

Another vice-chancellor said that the return to face-to-face teaching had reflected the desire of students for an in-person educational experience and the evidence that wholly online teaching led to high dropout rates.

“[Students’] voices and concerns are keenly focused on just how much they want their student experience to be one where they feel part of a real community, with as many opportunities as possible for face-to-face teaching and learning, and for forming new friendships,” they said.

The vice-chancellor warned that going wholly online would mean closing buildings and support services, which, in the absence of further government support, would put more jobs at risk.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that unions had agreed joint principles with institutions on the safety of reopening campuses. “Given how hard employers have been working with unions locally to make campuses as safe as they can be in the current environment, any ballot for industrial action is naturally disappointing,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Union threatens wider industrial action: Unrest over return of face-to-face teaching on UK campuses pushes staff-management relations to the limit

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Reader's comments (5)

"Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that unions had agreed joint principles with institutions on the safety of reopening campuses. “Given how hard employers have been working with unions locally to make campuses as safe as they can be in the current environment, any ballot for industrial action is naturally disappointing,” he said." Speaking re my own University, that last sentence of how hard employers have been working with Unions is laughable. They (SMT) have, and still are pursuing their own agenda of wholesale change whilst in a pandemic and have obfuscated at almost every turn.
Yes, and this rag spurs them on with its vacuous awards and meaningless rankings that seem to metastasise like a spreading cancer sucking the lifeblood out of UK academia (and globally); with their ideology of a marketised HE. And the award goes to THE (amongst others)...
Every branch now has the ammunition to demand online teaching only as recommended by Sage on (?) 21 September. VCs will not have any counter argument.
All this reminds me why I do not waste my money on the UCU. After a previous strike that only cost those involved money and has achieved nothing, more action is proposed. I cannot see the goverment or the public supporting this and so fee returns will follow with subsequent catastrophic consequences for universities. I have often said we have too many universities but solving that problem like this is not ideal, to say the least. I have been into my office and met students. I felt perfectly safe and we should not hysterical about some face-to-face teaching. I am over 50 so supposedly much more at risk than my students but life is more than just staying alive by being imprisoned at home.
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Students are customers, who has paid for a service. If that service cannot be delivered, or that service has to change (eg to online teaching) the consumer/ student should be compensated.

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