University lecturers will not resume “unsafe” face-to-face teaching this academic year, and any attempt by the government or vice-chancellors to reopen campuses in February will fail, the UK’s largest academic union has warned.
The University and College Union will ballot its members to strike against the resumption of in-person teaching, should any university attempt to organise the return of its staff to campuses over the next six months while staff feel it is unsafe.
The move comes as the National Union of Students demands that universities stop charging students fees and offer them rent rebates while they are unable to use their accommodation, with thousands planning rent strikes.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, told the Observer that university teaching must remain online for the remainder of the academic year for safety reasons. “We’ve realised now that showing the government scientific data does not lead them to make good decisions. So we’re taking the matter into our own hands, and where members in universities are concerned that employers will bring people back too early and it will lead to a public health disaster, like it did in September, they will ballot. They will win those ballots. And they will refuse to do in-person activities as part of that.”
Decisions to strike will be taken by individual UCU branches, as some universities – including Cambridge, the London School of Economics and the University of York – have already moved all classroom-based teaching online for the rest of the semester or academic year. Current government guidance states only that non-essential teaching should be done remotely until “at least mid-February”.
“Some universities are acting far more sensibly than others,” Grady said. “But we’ve made it very clear to all our branches that if you are worried about what your employer is going to do, we will recommend branches ballot [for strike action] so they are able to continue delivering remotely what would be unsafe to do in person. Because legally, that is the only option we have. Government inaction and employer intransigence has left us with no other choice.”
University staff need certainty that teaching will continue to take place online, Grady said. “Being told to switch between remote and face-to-face teaching, or indeed deliver both, has led to incredible levels of stress and burnout in a sector that was already understaffed.”
NUS president Larissa Kennedy said students and staff have all been bearing the brunt of 11th-hour decisions from the government and that students cannot afford to keep paying for accommodation they are not allowed to live in.
“Students need rent rebates and rent reductions in order to get through the next few months.
“Unlike when our decision-makers went to university, nowadays, lots of students have to work just to be able to survive and afford to access education.”
Many students normally work part-time in the leisure, hospitality and retail sectors, and are in thousands of pounds of debt in rent arrears already. “It’s impacting student mental health. When you are on the brink financially and it doesn’t feel like there’s a way out or you have rights or options, it’s incredibly daunting and harrowing,” Kennedy said.
An online survey of more than 300 students’ feelings about the pandemic by Sheffield University undergraduate Orla Katz Webb-Lamb showed just how damaging it has been to their mental health.
Respondents described their experience as “cripplingly lonely”, “isolating and overwhelming” and “a waste of money”. Another said they “weren’t sure they wanted to make it to 2021”. One respondent complained: “There is so much uncertainty alongside increased isolation,” while others spoke of how stressful and depressing home-learning is: “I would like to go to the library with my classmates.”
“The general response to student complaints is along the lines of ‘tough shit’ and it’s just not good enough,” Webb-Lamb said. “We’ve been abandoned by the government – students weren’t even mentioned in Boris Johnson’s 4 January briefing. We need action now – action on fees, action on academic support and action on mental health.”