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Health & Safety

UCU concerns about long-term planning for teaching – correspondence with senior management

Email sent on 14 January 2021 to all members of UEB.

Dear UEB members

This letter is in relation to the need for improved long-term planning regarding the delivery of teaching, in particular the inclusion of in-person teaching as part of the blended learning mix. We understand from the meeting with Richard Middleton on the 11th of January that UEB have been discussing this but that, to date, no longer-term decision has been made. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, colleagues across the University have – in the face of workloads which are generally already excessive – accepted the additional burdens of adapting to pandemic-era blended learning.  However, the lack of transparent medium and long-term planning is increasing workloads and having a detrimental effect on staff wellbeing, and the ongoing uncertainty is only causing further stress and anxiety for staff. It would be in the interests of staff and students to make clear, public and realistic plans for the remainder of the teaching this academic year, so that colleagues can have the best chance of delivering their best possible work in a situation in which they can retain a sense of meaningful control over their professional output. Staff cannot work to the best of their ability so long as we remain in a situation of three-week planning windows. In view of current case levels, hospital admissions and deaths, of the time-lag between infections and admissions, and the speed of the vaccine rollout, we believe that it is currently unrealistic and potentially irresponsible to expect a return to pre-lockdown levels of in-person teaching before the Easter break. We remind you that our members voted in November for the reduction as far as possible of in-person teaching between January and March in order to keep local infection rates as low as possible. Transparency, trust and efficiency would all be best served by agreeing this and enabling staff to plan for it now.  

If UEB really considers it impossible to clarify plans for the upcoming term at this time, we call upon you to lay out in full detail the likely alternative scenarios and the conditions which would shift the University or parts thereof from one scenario to another. For instance: what levels of infections and hospitalizations, locally and nationally, would trigger the continued restriction of in-person teaching, as it currently is, to certain priority subjects?  If the increased transmissibility of the new virus variant results, as seems likely, in even lower capacities in some teaching rooms, what is the University’s plan to manage capacity? 

Failing to offer clarity and continuing to make decisions at the last possible moment threatens to undermine further the confidence of staff in the senior management team. It will also undermine the confidence that students and potential students will have in the University and add to their stress and anxiety.  

We look forward to receiving a prompt response to our concerns.

UCU equality concerns during the 3rd lockdown – correspondence with management

Email response received from Mark Spearing, 14/1/21, to UCU equality concerns during the 3rd lockdown.  Our initial email outlining the key issues can be found in the thread below.

I have read your email carefully, and appreciate the concerns that you articulate.  However, your assessment of the situation is not accurate, and in particular we have not changed our guidance and policies.   Our approach is exactly the same as it was for the first lockdown and period of school closure last March.  As the Vice-Chancellor made clear again last week, we understand and are very sympathetic to the challenges of juggling working from home with caring responsibilities. We encourage all staff, and particularly those with concerns such as those you raise, to talk to their line managers about their individual circumstances and needs, and we are encouraging – as the Vice-Chancellor did –  all line managers to allow staff, where possible, to manage their working life flexibly around their care obligations during this period of lockdown. We are equally conscious that it is not just those with school-age children who may be under pressure – others will have caring responsibilities for more vulnerable family members and friends, for others lockdown can be very isolating.

Regarding the particular questions that you raise, I do not believe that these are specifically EDI matters, although I recognise that there is an EDI component, so I would encourage you to raise them in the regular meetings with Richard.  If there are specific EDI issues, I would be happy to join you at one or more of these meetings.

My final comment, is that this is an exceptional time, and I feel very strongly that this requires us to work closely together and with understanding.  At the heart of this is looking after the people in the organisation, many of whom are your members.  I know that all members of UEB are committed to supporting our colleagues and mitigating the effects of Covid on them and our institution.   I think that it is very important that, as far as possible, we are working together to this goal, rather than in an adversarial fashion.  All decisions, including some of your suggestions, have consequences, which may have a negative consequence on staff.  Developing a shared understanding of the overall picture, including the financial aspects, was one of the key items we agreed when we developed our joint working charter in 2019.  I think that it is particularly important to keep this in mind at the moment.

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Email sent on 14 January 2021 to Mark Spearing, Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, cc’d to Richard Middleton, Chief Operating Officer.
Dear Mark 

We are writing to you in your role as the University’s Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. 

Southampton UCU are deeply concerned about the additional strain that the new lockdown will have on all staff. In particular, many of our members are once again combining work, family life, childcare and home-schooling. 

While we acknowledge that the University has increased the domestic leave to which staff with caring responsibilities are entitled, this is not sufficient, given the length of the current lockdown. The proposal of allowing staff flexible working hours, whereby they may be expected to work in the early mornings, late evenings and weekends, while home educating during the working week, is not physically or mentally sustainable. The alternative proposal of a temporary reduction in working hours is inequitable, as it transfers the costs of the pandemic onto individuals (it will have an impact not only on pay, but also on pension contributions, annual leave and other benefits).  

SUCU are disappointed that the positive and supportive line UEB sent out in the first lockdown, of ‘do what you can’, has now been replaced with ‘take unpaid leave and reduce your hours if you can’t manage’. Indeed, we are saddened that the University considers it appropriate to promote its voluntary salary-reducing measures to hard-pressed staff at such a difficult point in the pandemic. Asking parents and carers to take unpaid leave is insulting to their hard work and commitment throughout the duration of the pandemic, which has already involving the sacrifice of family time, rest, leave and research.  

Furthermore, many members are also reluctant to reduce their hours, as they realise this will have a knock-on effect on their colleagues, at a time when all staff are overloaded with work and struggling to stay afloat. We are at a time when people’s reserves are already low after the impact of the first two national lockdowns, and staff are beginning to feel the impact of recent staff departures via voluntary severance.  The approach therefore has serious implications for health, safety and wellbeing of all staff, not just parents and carers. 

Ultimately then, without adequate intervention this crisis will result in serious long-term and profoundly unequal detriment to the careers and prosperity of all staff who have caring responsibilities.  This impacts particularly although not exclusively on women.   

We would appreciate an urgent response to the following questions so we can share this information with our members: 

1.     Why is the University not offering a part-time furlough option for those with caring responsibilities, as other institutions are? (e.g. see the following policy from the University of Oxford– https://hr.admin.ox.ac.uk/the-job-retention-scheme) 

2.     If a member of staff chooses to temporarily reduce their hours, where will this money go? If we had a commitment that it would be used to bring in temporary replacements then some members may be more inclined to take up this offer. 

3.     Will UEB reconsider their policy of asking staff to take unpaid leave if they cannot manage with existing workloads due to parenting/caring commitments? Staff in this position are doing the best they can and should be able to continue to receive full pay. 

4.     Can UEB send a clear urgent message to all line managers that staff should be able to prioritise those aspects of work that are essential and set aside activities that are non-urgent? 

5.     We ask that UEB provide clear reassurance that the impacts of COVID-19 will not have a detrimental impact on career progression, we would like to see a clear plan on how these mitigating circumstances will be fully factored into future promotion rounds, and how the equality impacts will be monitored and transparently shared. 

We look forward to receiving your prompt response.

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

 

 

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

Correspondence with senior management following the EJJNC

Following the email sent to the COO on the 30th September from the 3 campus unions, we received the following response on the 5th October and have since responded with our comments (highlighted in blue):

 

Dear Lucy, Adam, Naomi, Alastair and Gwen

Thank you for your email.   I have been very busy during this first week of the new teaching year and regret that my reply is delayed.

Following discussion with you at one of our weekly meetings and in the correspondence to arrange the EJJNC on Tuesday, and its agenda, I believe our mutual intention had been to address the many topics you had previously raised in emails and letters at that meeting.  That was the reason I had deferred replying to those emails.  We have established regular dialogue at our weekly meetings and we all agreed that the additional time at an extra JJNC would be the best place to raise and discuss issues and concerns.

We also expected that the meeting would be organised in that way and hoped that you would specifically address the concerns that we raised. We believe that we had been quite clear what these issues were in our emails so did not feel it necessary to alter the agenda to itemise these. We felt that too much time was devoted to listening to the University’s position, which by now we know well, and going over old ground, and not enough time was given to listening to UCU’s specific concerns over H&S and in-person teaching. 

Clearly from your email you think that did not comprehensively happen in practice.  I propose therefore to prepare a comprehensive reply to the points you have raised and ensure you have that before our next weekly meeting on Wednesday 7th October.  That would be much appreciated.

Our weekly meetings have been an unprecedented opportunity for issues relating to the establishment of a COVID-secure campus to be raised, to be recorded and for answers to be given.  I believe that we all participated in those meetings in the spirit of mutual determination to provide a secure environment in which to work, to research and to educate our students.  I am very grateful for the contributions union representatives made to development of the protocols and guidance for re-opening the campus after lockdown.  Those have been the foundation of a successful re-opening of University activity on campus and have been rigorously followed in every building opened.

We have always said that we appreciate the opportunity for discussion in the weekly meetings and thank you for the time you have taken to attend. However, we do not believe that the unions have been comprehensively included in the ‘development of the protocols and guidance for re-opening the campus after lockdown’. For example, UCU did not contribute to decision-making around the return to in-person teaching. We were allowed access to the operational ‘curriculum planning’ group but not the decision-making Active Campus group.

There are a number of important communications we did not sight of in advance of their publication, including the guidance for in-person teaching sent out by Alex Neill and the “good practice for socially distanced teaching” guidance. The latter contradicted some of the guidance in earlier correspondence (part of which has subsequently had to be corrected by Cathy Day). We also dispute that protocols have been ‘rigorously followed in every building opened’; we hear from our members and our sister unions that contractors are not socially distancing, have not received information about ‘Covid-secure’ protocols and that one-way systems are not being used. Rooms booked for teaching have been found locked at the start of class, preventing students and staff from entering and thus encouraging people to congregate in large groups. Masks are not always being worn and cleaning equipment, such as bins, are not always provided. Our members have found sanitizer stations turned off. The 25-student upper limit on classes has already been waived for some booked teaching, creating the dangerous possibility of ‘superspreader’ events and undermining the risk mitigation strategies we rely on.

You will be aware of the Government’s clearly expressed expectation that universities will be open, will be teaching their students in a blended way (including in-person) and that they will take care of students to ensure their well-being.  This is consistent with the University’s commitment to provide the best education we can in current circumstances.  This approach has been evidently supported by students who want to come to our University to learn, to experience new opportunities and to develop their potential.

The government line is constantly changing and their own advisors on SAGE warned that students coming back to halls would aid transmission. The government line on face-to-face teaching has always allowed for interpretation by individual institutions. In his recent address to parliament, Gavin Williamson said that face-to-face teaching should happen where it is difficult to replicate learning online, for example, for some clinical and practical subjects. UCU agrees with this. It has never been our line no in-person teaching should occur at all, nor that online is always preferable; it is simply that it is safest for all if in-person teaching is restricted to what is strictly necessary. We do not agree that face-to-face teaching under the current constraints is always the best possible education, because it is less flexible than the online alternatives (e.g. in terms of group work). Our staff are being pressured to provide in-person teaching even when they believe that the online equivalent would be pedagogically equivalent or better. 

Students can still enjoy new experiences and develop their potential but we must be realistic and honest about what can be provided during the current crisis. We note with concern that students are presented as wanting the on-campus experience. This is based on the model of ‘the student’ as young, able-bodied and without caring responsibilities. The voices and viewpoints of disabled, clinically vulnerable and mature students are missing from this picture of ‘business as usual’, though our members are hearing the voices of these students. 

Moreover, the government’s expectations were based on a national-level approach to the pandemic that would include both a functioning test and trace system and a case rate either falling or at least controlled. We draw your attention to the test and trace fiasco that played out over the weekend; across the country the number of positive cases has been dramatically understated, and over 15,000 contacts have not been traced due to an error in using Excel for data storage. The risk of many thousands more infections as a result of this mishandling is significant and we suggest that merely meeting the earlier expectations set by the Government is inadequate to ensure good public health outcomes.

Those plans that you have contributed to are robust and stand comparison with other universities across the UK.  In several ways we exceed the mitigations of other universities, not least with our unique surveillance testing for all students and for staff working regularly on campus.  The testing programme will identify even asymptomatic infected people before they have opportunities to transmit infection widely.  That will give confidence that those on campus are most likely to be staff and students who have recently tested negative for coronavirus.

The last sentence does not quite follow—and there is some uncomfortable vagueness in the term ‘recently’. We were told in recent communication that the coverage of students was far from universal, and take-up by staff falls behind that of students. We are being asked to bring our saliva samples to campus on the first day we are scheduled to teach, which means there is a serious danger that we bring infection to campus, pass it on, and then receive our positive result too late. If arrangements are similar for students, this will mean any given student could spread the virus widely before they are located and asked to self-isolate. We have also heard reports that staff due to teach in-person have received kits but not the first “take a test” instruction. Students have also informed staff that they have received nothing in the last week so there are already numerous students mixing with no testing in progress.

As of Friday morning there were less than a dozen staff and students with known positive COVID-19 tests.  That does not warrant a move from our tier-1 to a more restricted amount of in-person teaching.  The teaching rooms are designed to reduce the risk of transmission – as you know there are Perspex screens for teachers to stand behind, strict spacing, anti-viral wipes, cleaning between each teaching session, a requirement to wear face-covering indoors, one-way systems and timetabling to avoid cross-overs between classes.

We believe that this does not reflect the realities of the national infection rate, nor the lessons we could learn from other universities. While Southampton’s planning compares well to some other universities, it is not leading the way. Solent and Bournemouth took the courageous decision to move the vast majority of their teaching online in order to protect staff and students. Some students are still in student accommodation but they were able to make the choice to stay at home if they wanted to and were able. The requirement to wear face-covering indoors is undermined by the fact that staff and students are allowed to take them off when distanced of more than 2m. This does not take into account airborne transmission. A recent report shows that the CDC in the USA is now taking the risks of aerosol transmission far more seriously: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/10/05/920446534/cdc-acknowledges-coronavirus-can-spread-via-airborne-transmission?t=1601988013329 Face-covering indoors should be compulsory at all times. This lack of clarity has already resulted in several cases where staff or students took their masks off during in-person classes.

In order for us to assess the validity of the University’s claims regarding COVID-positive numbers we need substantially more information. We need to know: how many students have been recently tested (out of the eligible population); how many have tested negative and how many positive, and the same for all staff working on campus. Again, Southampton management is not here following best practice in the sector, and could and should provide a publicly-accessible COVID cases dashboard of the kind developed by Sheffield University and as recommended by UCU nationally.

Moreover, the University’s approach assumes that moving from ‘tier 1’ to a higher tier should a wholly reactive measure based on the prevalence of cases within the University, rather than a pro-active measure taking into account the prevalence of cases within the wider community, and thus the capacity of that community’s health infrastructure to cope with a surge in cases and hospital admissions. We believe that the move to a higher tier should be a pro-active. In an environment where cases are rising exponentially, the University’s responsibility to its students, staff, and community is to do what it can to suppress and prevent further infections, not simply to react to outbreaks after they happen. This is particularly important because, even with the University’s testing regime, by the time an outbreak is identified affected students and staff will have potentially already infected many other members of the community via buses, cafes, bars etc.

The reduced teaching timetable and limited, booked, spaces in the libraries reduce the number of students coming to campus and only those staff who need to work on campus are expected to be there.  Staff who can work at home and do not need to be on campus (eg for teaching) will continue to work from home.  I have confidence in the ability of our students to understand our guidance and requirements and to behave in ways that keep themselves and others safe.  Partly I have that confidence because I have seen them sticking with smaller groups and wearing face-coverings when needed.

This does not reflect what we are hearing from our colleagues working in halls, or indeed from the local community with respect to students living in private housing. A substantial number of students are not adhering to the ‘rule of 6’. We do not blame the students for this—they are being told they need to be here to study, and they are being asked to restrict their movements more than the rest of the adult population in order to stay safe. Students still need to work, to socialise and move around the country to visit their families—not least for the sake of their mental health. Those students who have chosen to come to halls are likely to be highly mobile with few obvious health concerns. The lifestyles they lead and their living conditions are not conducive to social distancing. With regards to staff, we are still extremely alarmed that insufficient attention has been paid to the commuting needs of staff in back-to-campus planning. It is also not true that staff are being allowed to continue to work from home – they are being told they must attend PAT meetings F2F, inductions F2F and other pedagogically non-essential interactions with students in-person. If they have commuted to work, they will not be able to go home between sessions and there are limited spaces for them to work on campus.

The University has developed its outbreak response plan in discussion and partnership with the City and County public health officials.  We have clear plans for what to do when someone reports they are infected and comprehensive support arrangements are in place for students who are in self-isolation – with their health and mental well-being our priority.

The latest guidance to students states that flatmates and friends should help students who are isolating with food. This is too great a burden to put on students who hardly know each other, notwithstanding the fact that flatmates may also be isolating. There are limited delivery slots for supermarkets and if there is an outbreak, pressure will be put on these services. We want reassurances that students will be looked after by the University (not their friends) in the event of an outbreak.

Moreover, it remains clear from early outbreaks, as well as from recent ones at universities and even from the Rose Garden of the White House last week that the really problematic period for infection spread is before people realise they have been infected.

You have raised concerns about staff who are especially vulnerable to the risks consequent on COVID-19 infection.  The risk assessment for individuals used by the University enables anyone with concerns to identify those risks in discussion with their line manager, so that their line manager can make appropriate arrangements.  Those arrangements can include working from home and in my conversations with line managers since Tuesday I have heard examples in which that has been readily agreed.  Following the EJJNC on Tuesday I followed up on the commitment I made at the meeting to ensure that line managers would be familiar with this risk assessment process and how to respond to their staff members’ concerns.  This work is in hand and I can report progress when we next meet.

While some risk assessments for staff permitting them to work at home have been readily agreed, others have not, and indeed we are aware of cases where working from home arrangements have still not been agreed for vulnerable staff, or staff living with vulnerable individuals, even though their on-campus work is scheduled to begin this week. We believe that in the current environment, which is fraught with risk simply because of the national context, all staff who can work from home and wish to work from home should be able to do so, in line with the government guidance for the rest of the population. We also note that the RAs do not directly consider the impact of an activity on anyone but the staff member who is the subject of the RA. There is no space to assess the impact on family members or cohabitants of that staff member; their vulnerability to Covid-19 does not therefore get taken into account even as such a staff member is required to return to the workplace. This will put considerable strain on their mental wellbeing, due to the very real chance of spreading Covid-19 infection to such family members. Asking staff to put their family at risk to undertake activities that could be more easily be undertaken remotely is simply unacceptable and shows a deep unseriousness about staff well-being. We would be grateful if you could provide us with a copy of the Equality Impact Assessment pertaining to the University’s decision reopen campus and recommence in-person teaching in the middle of this pandemic.

I look forward to meeting you at our next weekly discussion.

Best wishes

Richard

 

 

EGM motion – Return to campus and in-person teaching plans 

The motion below was passed by a quorate Extraordinary General Meeting of UCU members held on 15 September 2020

Motion 3Return to campus and in-person teaching plans 

Southampton UCU do not believe that the University’s return to campus plans in their current form are clear and comprehensive enough to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission on campus to a safe level.  

This branch notes: 

  • The University’s position that all students must receive some in-person teaching. 
  • The recent British Medical Journal and Independent SAGE reports highlighting the high risk of in-person teaching. 
  • The University is not yet committed to making use of all the control methods set out in the Government guidance of 10 September [link], such as the segmentation of students and ventilation requirements. 
  • UCU’s 5 tests for safe returns to on-campus working in HE.  
  • That cases of Covid-19 in the UK are rising at a substantial rate, particularly amongst those aged 17-20. 
  • That students will mix when they are off campus. They have jobs, use public transport and may live in HMOs. Their circumstances increase the likelihood of transmission on campus, particularly if they are asymptomatic. 
  • The joint letter from Unite, Unison and UCU Health and Safety reps (7/09/20) noting that we have been excluded from the high-level decision-making forums such as Active Campus and stating that they have not been adequately consulted on Health and Safety issues, particularly in relation to in-person teaching. 

This branch believes: 

  • Bringing students back prematurely poses a significant risk to staff, students, their families and the wider Southampton community. 
  • That control measures put in place by the university are insufficient, particularly as we do not know what degree of adherence students will demonstrate, nor what the University will do in the event of non-compliance.  
  •  That there is no way to make in-person teaching completely safe within a shared breathing space. Moreover, for many courses there is limited direct educational value in the style of teaching necessitated by maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.  
  • That clinically extremely vulnerable staff and those caring for vulnerable people have not received adequate advice, reassurance and protections, despite the University stating that the health and safety of staff and students is its main priority. Furthermore, poor communication around the return to campus plans have added to workloads and increased stress and mental health problems.   

This branch calls on management to: 

  • Ensure that all staff members with health vulnerabilities (or household members with vulnerabilities) are permitted to teach and work remotely for the duration of the pandemic without detriment. 
  • Agree that no staff member should be compelled to return to campus until the 5 tests set by UCU’s expert panel are met 
  • As advised by the Independent SAGE report, online teaching must be the default until these 5 tests are met. 
  • Make the wearing of masks on campus mandatory in all enclosed spaces (with standard health exemptions). 
  • Take all steps available within the law to ensure a comprehensive  testing regime that covers all staff and students (with standard health exemptions) following the BMJ’s recommendations of 01/09/2020 https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3365 
  • Publish its procedure and timeline for collecting and reporting confirmed cases amongst staff and students, including contact tracing for positive cases 
  • Publish its contingency plans listing what trigger points for University and community transmission the University has identified, and what responses these will activate on campus. Restate and uphold its commitment to fully consult trade union Health and Safety representatives on all its Covid-19 contingency planning. 

This branch resolves to:  

  • Publish resources to inform members’ decision-making regarding the safety of return to campus.  
  • Support members if they use their rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. 
  • Launch a campaign, in collaboration with other TUs and local authorities to ensure the health and safety of our community is prioritised over financial interests. 
  • Refuse to endorse the return to campus plans until these issues are addressed.  

Proposer: Lucy Watson 

Seconder: Claire Le Foll 

Motion passed

 

 

 

COVID-19: Health and Safety correspondence with University management

This week Health and Safety officers from UCU, Unison and Unite wrote to the COO informing him of their concerns around the return to campus plans. Your exec have also written to the COO asking senior management to address these and other unresolved issues urgently. You can read the correspondence below. We will update members on developments when we can.