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January 14th, 2022:

Further communications with senior management about in-person examinations

Following our recent email to management raising our continued concerns about returning to campus and in particular in-person examinations, we received an unsatisfactory reply prompting a further email from the branch:

Sent: 13 January 2022 11:23
To: Vice-Chancellor <vice-chancellor@soton.ac.uk>; Vice President (Operations) <Vice-PresidentOperations@soton.ac.uk>; Alex Neill <A.D.Neill@soton.ac.uk>
Cc: Cathy Day <Cathy.Day@soton.ac.uk>; ucu <ucu@soton.ac.uk>
Subject: UCU response to VP operations email re in-person exams

Dear Mark, Alex and Wendy,

We are writing again in response to developments regarding in-person exams which have occurred over the past few days and to urge the University once more to think again.

We thank Wendy Appleby for her response to our letter sent on 5th January formally requesting the University not to go ahead with large in-person exams because of the risks posed by the highly contagious Omicron variant. We are not satisfied with the reply, most of which repeats content from emails already sent to students and H&S officers and does not address our key concerns.

On Tuesday 11th, Alex Neill sent an email to students explaining the University’s rationale for continuing with in-person exams despite strong opposition from staff and students. UCU takes issue with a number of statements in that email:

1. ‘Rigorous risk assessments have been carried out, and we are only using venues that have sufficient space to allow for our COVID safety measures to be put in place’.

  • We believe it is not space that is the most important issue, but ventilation. H&S officers from all 3 campus unions have been asking for ventilation to be checked fully in all teaching spaces and we are still waiting. H&S officers are not confident that ventilation checks have been carried out with appropriate care and rigour.

2. Students have been told ‘If your ability to attend an in-person exam is affected by COVID – for example, because a positive test requires you to self-isolate – please use our special considerations process to notify your School’.

  • There are significant consequences for students with this approach, particularly those who have internships, summer jobs or postgraduate courses lined up. If they need to do referrals in the summer, these plans could be jeopardised and will certainly have to be put on hold adding unnecessarily to stress and anxiety.
  • There are also significant consequences for staff. Last summer, examination boards lasted many hours across many days and put undue pressure on administrative and academic staff which was detrimental to their health and wellbeing. It is unconscionable that the University would want to put staff through all that again, particularly as it has the chance now to prevent it from happening.

3. ‘The Government and public health bodies are clear that in-person on-campus activities can and should continue’.

  • UCU believes this is a misreading of the guidance and is unrelated to the question of in-person exams.

4. ‘We want to reassure you that the University has taken every precaution to reduce potential risks for both staff and students’

  • UCU cannot agree with this statement since the University is neither mandating the use of proper face masks instead of face coverings nor providing an adequate supply of COVID-free air.

5.  It has come to our attention that the usual reliance on Uniworkforce temporary staff as invigilators has led to a shortage of invigilators due at least in part to a fear of catching COVID whilst invigilating. Absent sight of a risk assessment related to invigilating exams, we are not in a position to comment on the safety of undertaking invigilating work should colleagues be offered the opportunity.

Furthermore, for some subjects, students are being required to attend on-campus in-person examinations which are computer-based online assessments and have been designed to work both online and in-person. Forcing students and supervisory staff to undertake this risk given that there are alternative, viable plans in place seems gratuitous.

Finally, no consideration seems to have been given to the potential harm caused to the wider Southampton community (noting evidence from the USA that young children are at particular risk, and that they are unvaccinated in the UK) by increasing the spread of COVID omicron at this critical time. It seems entirely inappropriate for in-person exams to be taking place in the current climate when it is possible to move to an alternative plan.

Once more, UCU requests your urgent response.

Southampton UCU

 

Response from management to our email of 5 January

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