Union slams ministers for ignoring advice to move teaching online

Documents reveal Sage advised UK government in September that halting in-person teaching would help prevent spread of Covid-19

October 13, 2020
Source: iStock

UK higher education’s biggest union has said that coronavirus outbreaks on campus were the fault of the Westminster government, after it was revealed that it had ignored scientific advice to keep all teaching online.

Documents published on 12 October show that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies told the government on 21 September that all university and college teaching should be online “unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”. It was part of a list of immediate interventions set out by the advisory group to prevent an “exponential rise” in Covid-19 cases.

Since the start of the academic year, many campuses have seen a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases. Michelle Donelan, the universities minister told parliament on 12 October that 9,000 cases had been confirmed among students in the past week.

A number of universities with particularly high numbers have already switched their teaching online for the next month at least, including Liverpool’s three universities, Manchester’s two largest universities and Northumbria and Newcastle universities.

The University of Nottingham recently confirmed that there are more than 1,500 active cases at the institution, while Sheffield Hallam University, which has already switched to online learning, has confirmed that 422 students and 13 staff had tested positive between 5 and 11 October.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, which called for university teaching to stay online in August, said that “the chaos” seen on campus and in halls of residence was a direct result of government ministers’ decision to ignore scientific advice. They instead chose “to put the health of university staff, students and local communities at risk”, she said.

“Ministers were given clear recommendations on how to stem the spread of the virus before term started at the vast majority of universities. They could have taken swift and decisive action then and instructed universities to move their teaching online to mitigate against tens of thousands of students moving across the country,” Dr Grady said.

“To stop more areas being forced into harsher restrictions, we need a nationally coordinated response from government that belatedly moves working online at universities. Students must be allowed to return home if they wish, provided it is safe to do so.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “A number of universities have increased their online teaching in response to local outbreaks. This is in line with government guidance which sets out four tiers of restrictions for education settings, in line with Sage advice.

“We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we prioritised their education and well-being so young people’s lives are not put on hold.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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