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November 3rd, 2020:

UCU concerns regarding blended teaching and Tier 1 status – correspondence with senior management 

Following the announcement from the UK Government over the weekend regarding the new lockdown guidance, UCU wrote to the University Executive Board requesting that they reconsider their plans for blended online and face to face teaching, and review the current Tier 1 status.  Please find below the original email and the response from Richard Middleton, the University’s Chief Operating Officer.

 

From: Chief-Operating-Officer
Sent: Tue 03/11/2020 08:07
Subject: UCU concerns regarding blended teaching and Tier 1 status

Dear colleagues in UCU

Thank you for the email you sent to UEB Members on Monday.  As you know, we are due to meet on Friday (with Unite and Unison representative also) and – as always – I am of course happy for us to discuss these issues in detail when we meet.

In advance of that conversation, I did want to make a number of points:

  • Last night Universities Minister Michelle Donelan wrote to Vice-Chancellors to say that the guidance the Government is finalising for Higher Education will make clear to universities, and to students: “We do not, however, want or expect to see a transition to full online learning during the new national restrictions – this could jeopardise the learning that students receive, as well as risk their mental health and wellbeing. We want you to make informed local decisions whilst ensuring all students have some form of face to face learning, where possible and safe to do so.” I attach a copy of the letter for your information, and her letter to all students.
  • The Minister also comments:  “I know just how hard HEPS have worked to put in place measures to ensure teaching and learning is provided in COVID-secure environments, and we have not seen evidence of increased transmission within these environments”.
  • I am aware of course that there is a national UCU campaign; I trust our discussion on Friday can focus on the local context of Southampton. One size, and one approach, does not suit all. In assessing the balance of online and in person teaching, we need to take account of our own local context and circumstances– this includes the current relatively low comparative rates of COVID cases at the University; the major programme of asymptomatic saliva testing we are offering to students and eligible staff, which is growing; the extensive investment we have made in creating COVID-secure campuses (praised by staff and students alike); and – in discussion with public health authorities – an overall assessment of the public health risks, including to the mental health of students, and staff, and the state of local outbreaks.
  • Of course some staff, and indeed some students, may share your viewpoint and I am fully aware that view is not shared by other staff, and other students. These are complex issues, with many viewpoints, and it is important we hear those voices so we can balance the needs and concerns of all our staff and students. The UEB takes its responsibilities extremely seriously, and we are currently reviewing the situation and the prevailing Tier level very regularly.
  • We are of course also acutely aware of the wider city context in which we operate, which you referred to. As the Vice-Chancellor has explained previously, that is why we are in near daily contact with the Director of Public Health for Southampton City Council and with Public Health England, and why we are in very regular contact with the local Health Protection Board, the Director of Public Health for Hampshire County Council, and Hampshire police. They will not hesitate to intervene if they are concerned about increased community risk, and we would not hesitate to take action. We also know from talking to local businesses that the return of students is seen as a welcome boost to the city’s economy, and we have ensured we are keeping in close contact with local residents’ groups, councillors and MPs.

I look forward to our discussion on Friday.

Best wishes

Richard

Richard Middleton

Chief Operating Officer

From: ucu <ucu@soton.ac.uk>
Sent: 02 November 2020 18:02
Subject: UCU concerns regarding blended teaching and Tier 1 status

Dear UEB members

After the UK Government’s new lockdown guidance of 1 November 2020 and the Vice-Chancellor’s email of today (02/11) setting out UEB’s response, we note that UEB has agreed to continue with the same ‘comprehensive blend of face-to-face and online teaching’ that the University has been offering since the start of term, and that the University plans to remain at ‘Tier 1’ in DfE terms.

Though these decision have been made pending further clarification from Government, we believe that there is enough information in the government guidance to make further changes for the health and safety of staff, students, and the local community.  In particular, we want to emphasize the following points:

  • It was made clear in the Governmental briefings that cases were also rising fastest in the South; cases are comparatively low in the region now, but this is no cause for complacency. Minimising transmission must be a central goal, particularly when we consider the wellbeing of our students both in lockdown and during the lead-up to Christmas.
  • It looks very damaging—in terms of reputation if nothing else—for the University to continue to compel staff and students to travel through communities to deliver or receive teaching that could be provided online (in cases where in-person teaching is non-essential). In the event that community outbreaks worsen around the University whilst other businesses and families are making great enormous sacrifices to limit transmission, we risk a backlash that could cause damage to our reputation and local relationships.
  • The Government advice, as we understand it, is that universities are to remain open, but that workers are strongly advised to work at home if at all possible and that “Universities… should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible.” Prima facia, these guidelines are best implemented by staff delivering teaching online wherever possible. In any event, it appears to be the responsible step both in terms of safety and pedagogy, given the fast-changing nature of events.
  • It is clear that it is the university’s and all of our civic duty to contribute to the effort to bring the R rate and growth rate down so that students and staff might be able to join friends and family during the holidays. We are in a position to do this by moving all teaching online unless in person is required for lab or practice-based teaching. We are also conscious of students’ term-time mental health and wellbeing, but we remain concerned about the wider situation that might mean any continuation of the f2f status quo will cause greater difficulty for students’ and staffs’ mental and physical health in the long run.

As ever, we appreciate that UEB have stated its intention to work closely with campus trade unions. We are very keen to discuss these steps mutually, so that we can offer a staff perspective on how we can jointly navigate this difficult challenge in a way that safeguards students, staff and the goals of the University.

We look forward to hearing back from you.

Southampton UCU

UCU, UNITE and Unison survey – how safe do you feel on campus?

This is a summary of the findings from the UCU, UNITE and Unison survey we conducted at the beginning of October. We received 253 responses, mostly from Education, Research and Enterprise staff (87.7%) with permanent contracts (90%). We received responses from 29 Management Specialist, Administration staff, but very few from Technical and Experimental (1 member) and Community and Operational (2 members). 83.2% of respondents were full-time and 16.8% were part-time. Although we received 19 responses from FTC staff, we did not get a good response from hourly paid and zero hours staff (4 in total). This is one of the reasons why we have designed another survey specifically for PGRs and hourly paid staff. We need to find ways of capturing their views as well as those in more secure employment because the challenges precarious workers face are quite different and often slip under the radar, especially when the landscape is changing so much and so quickly.

Due to the poor response rate we cannot take these results as representative of union members’ experiences on campus. There were also limitations in the design of the survey. A lot of respondents did not have to teach in-person and some had not yet returned to campus, so their views weren’t based on direct experience. If a question had been added to separate those who were actually on campus from those who were able to remain at home, we might have got more precise and targeted answers. The survey was possibly sent too early as teaching had only just started. It might have been better to wait until later in the semester in order to gain a more comprehensive picture.

Below is a summary of the responses to the survey along with some brief analysis. Where applicable, percentages have been rounded up or down. The precise numbers can be seen in the corresponding tables:

Q5 The risk mitigation measures relevant to your job are clear

68% responded positively to this question, although a significant minority (16%) did not feel that the risk mitigation measures were clear. Importantly, a further 16% were undecided which suggests that they were might not have been clear what the risk mitigations were or how they related to their job. Given that most respondents were ERE and permanent, it is possible that they were not required on campus a lot, if at all. This could affect their ability to answer this question decisively.

Q6 Management have provided clear communication about COVID precautions

Overall, staff seem satisfied with the communication from management (63%). However, 18% disagree that management have provided clear communication and a further 18% were undecided.

Q7 You have been informed in good time of the impact of COVID-related precautions on your work

The split between positive and negative responses is a bit more even here. 55% of respondents felt that they have been informed in good time of the impact of Covid-related precautions on their work. However, a significant minority (25%) did not agree and a further 20% were undecided. Again, this could be due to the lack of understanding by staff about what the impact of these measures might be rather than a positive comment on communication. It may be because many of the staff who responded had only just come back to campus or they were not required to be there in the near future.

Q8 The COVID arrangements related to my job role are adequate to reduce risk of transmission to students to an acceptable level

53% felt that the arrangements put in place were adequate to reduce transmission to students. However, 25% of respondents disagreed. This might be related to the job families of the respondents whose jobs only require them to meet students in teaching spaces. Staff may feel that the risk to students in the classroom is minimal but might feel differently about the risk to themselves in that space.

Q9 The COVID arrangements related to my job role are adequate to reduce risk of transmission from students to me

Indeed, the higher proportion of negative responses to this question (33%) suggests that staff are more concerned about the risk of transmission to them from students than they are between students. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of respondents (47%) believe that the covid arrangements are adequate to reduce the risk of transmission between students and staff. The percentage of respondents who neither agree nor disagree is quite high again and it is possible that this is due to the lack of campus activity being carried out by respondents meaning that they cannot comment on the level of risk.

Q10 The COVID arrangements for students across the University adequately reduce risk to other students

It is clear that staff are less certain that the arrangements for students are adequate to reduce the risk of transmission between students. Only 23% believe that these arrangements are adequate, while 47% feel that they are not.

Q11 The COVID arrangements for students across the University adequately reduce risk to neighbouring communities

Only 18.5% of respondents are confident that the covid arrangements for students implemented at the University reduce the risk to neighbouring communities. This is quite significant because it suggests that staff are concerned about the impact students returning to campus might have on the local community. 35% were unsure, however, which suggests that they do not feel they have enough information about this to make a judgement. At the time of this survey, numbers in Southampton were very low so the high level of uncertainty might be because staff are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. Significantly, 45% of respondents are clearly concerned about the impact of students returning to campus might have on the local infection levels.

Q12 I expect the COVID arrangements related to my job role to be fully adhered to by staff

Staff were very confident that colleagues would adhere to the covid arrangements on campus; 73% agreed with this statement. Again, a significant proportion (16%) were not sure, which suggests that they had not yet seen enough evidence to make an informed judgement.

Q13 I expect the COVID arrangements related to my job role to be fully adhered to by students

46% of respondents were confident that students would adhere to the arrangements, while 27% were not. Again, a significant proportion (27%) did not feel able to make a judgement about this, maybe because of lack of evidence.

Q14 I feel safe to carry out my job on campus

38% of staff feel safe on campus but it is deeply concerning that 40% do not. A further 21% of respondents did not feel able to say conclusively. These responses suggest that even if staff are quite happy with the measures put in place and the communication around them, they still do not feel safe carrying out their jobs on campus. There is clearly more to be done to make staff feel confident on campus during the pandemic.

Q15 Please provide any additional concerns or other information which it would be useful to include

There were 98 answers received to this the open-ended question. The responses are summarised below and some quotations are used to highlight pertinent points.

Some respondents were positive about the University’s management of the pandemic and the risk mitigation measures they have put in place. There were positive comments highlighting the ‘flexibility’ of line managers, praise for the testing scheme and communication from management. Some staff said that the University was doing well, ‘better than some’. There was acknowledgement that the pandemic is an ‘unprecedented situation’ and it is a ‘tough time to lead’ and on that basis, the University is ‘doing what it can’, has ‘made all reasonable efforts’ and ‘the measures that the University have taken are noticeable’.

As noted in the introduction, there were plenty of responses from staff who have not returned to campus and this is a limitation in the design of the survey. Of those who were undecided or more nuanced in their responses this was mainly due to lack of direct experience. Many respondents were delivering online teaching only or were exempt from returning to campus for health reasons. Two people pointed out that coming to campus was important for their mental health. A few respondents pointed out that students ‘deserved’ a face to face experience and one commented that it was ‘defeatist’ to simply not try. One respondent said ‘I personally recognise the considerable physical/mental health risks posed by students not having any meaningful in person activities to engage in. On that basis I am willing to engage in in-person teaching’. Again, this respondent had not yet begun teaching in-person and they stressed that their comments were ‘in theory’. There was also some misunderstanding presented in the comments. One respondent said ‘I particularly commend the university for moving all possible lecturing online and to limit face to face teaching to courses that cannot be taught solely online’. This is not, in fact, the University line, although it is what SUCU has been pushing for. The University wants to provide some in-person teaching to all students and whether that teaching is pedagogically the best option is of less importance than the ‘social’ benefits.

Some of the comments were quite mixed. One member likened the University response to a ‘car cash in slow motion’ but then went on to say that they taught clinical skills and the measures that had been put in place for that (after concerns had been raised) were adequate. The staff member has access to PPE and is using it, although they are responsible for stocking up the teaching rooms, which is ‘frustrating and time consuming’.

Some staff expressed their anger at the workload: ‘the workloads are punishing. They increased this year by at least 20-30% and in addition, everything takes longer to set up because of online recordings, marking, delivery’. Some highlighted the stress they were under caused by the pressure to teach on campus despite their reservations. One respondent said that ‘the approach the University has taken in relation to staff teaching in-person is a disgrace’ and that they felt ‘forced’ to teach across the week even though they feel ‘unsafe’. Some staff feel that ‘reducing face-to-face teaching to where it is *required* — e.g. laboratory or clinical work — would be a safer and more sustainable approach’ than insisting on some face to face for all students. Another staff member said they ‘feel very stressed, let down, and frankly do not understand what UoS is waiting for to move everything online’. One respondent was angry that most face to face teaching was being done by PGRs while permanent staff stay at home. This clearly raises equality issues which need addressing and will be part of the next survey we carry out. Some people felt that the University was prioritising money over safety, ‘The University puts us in the front line simply to justify asking students to return to campus, and therefore charging full fees. This is unacceptable’. There was some doubt expressed that students actually wanted to come back to campus because the process of canvassing students’ views had been opaque.

Other criticisms centred on poor ventilation in the teaching rooms, lack of adherence from staff and students to risk mitigation measures such as hand washing and wearing masks, lack of access to anti-bacterial products and hand sanitiser, and some staff were concerned about the added risk of travelling to work by public transport: ‘staff and students may be required to use public transport to come to campus. Public transport is NOT covid safe’, ‘The uni may feel the campus is covid secure but it’s too late by the time I’ve got there via train and bus’. Some staff felt strongly that this element of risk was not being considered fully enough.

One zero-hour contract worker said that they had not been given enough information to make an informed decision about returning to work. This is obviously very concerning for this colleague, who is being asked about shifts but does not know if they will be safe on campus.

Conclusion:

This is a small sample and cannot be taken to be representative of staff across the University. There is by no means universal satisfaction in the way the University has handled the situation, nor are staff feeling safe on campus on the whole. Nevertheless, many staff feel that management have done their best in difficult circumstances and have put in place reasonable measures to mitigate the risks of Covid-19.  There are numerous criticisms of the University’s decision to insist on in-person teaching and concerns about the increased risk posed to staff who deliver that teaching. It is clear from the findings that staff who are given flexibility to make their own decisions about whether to teach online or in-person are happier than those who feel ‘forced’ back to campus.

SUCU believe strongly that senior management should stop insisting on in-person teaching for all students regardless of pedagogical value and instead allow module leaders, HODs and DOPs to decide what is best for their students. This is happening in some Schools across the University and not in others. Where staff feel fully consulted and supported by local managers, their responses are more positive towards the Covid-19 risk mitigation measures put in place by the University. As we have done since March, SUCU will continue to work constructively with management to address these issues and represent the views of staff during this pandemic.

03/11/20