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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

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