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Correspondence with senior management regarding return of students in 2021

Response received from Alex Neill and Richard Middleton on Monday 21/12/2020 to concerns raised by UCU (original email also included below).

Dear Southampton UCU executive committee,

Thank you for the message below.  We believe that our plans for the return of students to campus after the winter break are indeed aligned with Government guidance, as it was when you wrote your email.  Events, information and Government responses have been changing since.  We therefore remain prepared for changes in guidance and in our plans.  The aim of the guidance you referred to was to limit the numbers of students travelling at the same time in January by staggering the points at which they will need to be back on campus.  Our plans will help to achieve this.

With regard to testing, we are strongly encouraging all our students to participate in our testing programme.   We have plans to further reinforce that message and the importance of testing.  We will continue to do all that we can to encourage and assist students to behave as responsible members of our (University and wider) community.

As we discussed at our meeting on Wednesday 16th December, when the University reopens after Christmas we will be happy to share with you details of our arrangements for students moving back into halls of residence, and our analysis of student movements on campus given our plans for their return to their studies.

With all best wishes for a peaceful and restorative break,

Alex and Richard

Professor Alex Neill
Vice-President

Richard Middleton

Chief Operating Officer

 

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We continue to remain concerned at the University’s stance on the return of students to campus after the Christmas break.  We have today (14/12/20) written to the Chief Operating Officer, Richard Middleton, and Alex Neill.  Cc’d to the Vice-Chancellor, Mark Spearing and Roberta Head

 

Dear Richard and Alex

We write to express our concerns about the University’s response to the latest government guidance regarding the return of students after the Christmas break.

To date, senior management have regarded government guidance as binding, over-riding the relative autonomy of the University—even when guidance has been open to interpretation and where other universities have made different decisions around teaching and learning. However, it seems that this latest coronavirus guidance is open to interpretation by University management and will not be strictly followed.

In the latest guidance, a staggered return of students to campus is recommended. A comprehensive list is given of the courses which should be prioritised, including ‘work, clinical or practical placements, courses requiring practical teaching or learning’, and ‘courses requiring access to specialist or technical equipment’. In addition, the guidance states that ‘HE providers do not have to allow all courses that fall within this list to return during this time and should consider whether any courses may be better delivered online at the beginning of term. For courses that meet these criteria, but that providers deem not to have practical elements, the return of students should take place from 25 January 2021’. The guidance clearly states that ‘the remaining courses should be offered online from the beginning of term so that students can continue their studies from home’. Moreover, while it is accepted that some students may need to return to campus earlier for a variety of reasons, the guidance states that ‘their courses should not resume face-to-face teaching, unless they study one of the practical courses defined above’.

Yet, the latest email from Alex Neill to all students says that ‘Students who have on-campus teaching sessions timetabled from week commencing 4 January are advised to return to campuses in time to allow them to participate in those sessions’ (09/12/20). There is no attempt to discriminate between those courses which have a practical element and those which do not. In fact, as the UEB blog says, the staggered return of students is expected to be achieved through a ‘natural phasing’ due to the differences in students’ timetables across the University (07/12/20). It is extremely disappointing that the University is making no attempt to exercise any control over the movement of students on campus when the government guidance asks them specifically to do so.

Importantly, the guidance also says that students who do return ‘should be tested as soon as they start accessing university facilities’ but with no controls in place around who is coming back and when, how can the University be sure that students are being tested before they access the facilities? This seems to be a significant flaw in the University’s claim to be maintaining a ‘covid-secure’ environment. Staff will, moreover, certainly have to deal with more emails from students unsure whether they should return or not given the contradiction between the widely-publicised government guidance and the University’s statement.

UCU believes that this latest guidance should be followed for clear public health reasons. The University seems worryingly complacent as a result of its good fortune in not experiencing major outbreaks in the Autumn. However, conditions in January are significantly different to those in September. Overall case numbers in the communities from which our students will be returning are higher, and students will be returning to University following free social mixing with up to three other households over the Christmas period. The decision to allow students return to accommodation and teaching on 4 January therefore risks a large outbreak on campus, in residential accommodation and, because of the shared use of community resources such as buses and shops, in the wider Southampton community.  If the University is expecting to manage this risk through its testing programme, it first owes both its staff and student unions a detailed explanation of its plan as to how all returning students will be tested before returning to accommodation in the weekend of 2-3 January, and to teaching in the week of the 4 January.

We urge the University to re-think its decision for the sake of the health and safety of its staff, students, and the wider Southampton community. We also note that the reputation of the individual institutions and UK HE sector as a whole has been seriously damaged domestically and internationally by the behaviour of some institutions during this pandemic. A serious January outbreak attributable to the University’s failure to follow government guidelines could be catastrophic for the University’s reputation as a safe institution at which to study and work.

To ensure that the branch’s communication with management remains transparent, we will be sharing this correspondence with our members. We look forward to your earliest response.

Southampton UCU executive committee

 

 

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