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Correspondence with management regarding in-person teaching, and return home of students

Email received from Richard Middleton, Chief Operating Officer, Mon 16/11/2020 12:32

Dear Southampton UCU Executive Committee,

Thank you for your email of 12th November, which was discussed at UEB this morning.

As I explained in my email of 3rd November and at our subsequent meeting on 6th November, the decisions we are making, and are regularly reviewing, are governed by a range of factors. These include the clear guidelines and instructions we are given by Government and in particular by the Department for Education, and also the context of our own local situation, informed by our near daily contact with the Director of Public Health for Southampton City Council and with Public Health England. We are also in very regular contact with the local Health Protection Board, the Director of Public Health for Hampshire County Council, and Hampshire Police. Our decisions are not made unilaterally, or in isolation.

The Government has now set out very clearly the criteria for ensuring the safe return home of students for the winter break: In order to ensure that students can be home at the end of the winter term and also reduce any transmission risk, the Government is asking that students return home once the national restrictions have been lifted, in a “student travel window” lasting from 3-9 December. It is obviously critical that universities follow these requirements consistently.

As a result, and following discussions with our local public health bodies, we are making clear to students today that teaching will move online from 9th December. Students will be advised that they should return home from the University after their last timetabled on-campus and in-person teaching within the period 3rd-9th December. This will enable us to stagger the leave dates of students as required by Government.

In addition, students are being encouraged to take part in our well-established Southampton COVID-19 saliva testing programme, if they aren’t doing so already. We will be advising students to take two tests: one 10 to 11 days before they plan to travel, and another 2 to 3 days before they intend to travel.  Those who test positive will of course be required to isolate following NHS guidance, and the University will provide support for them, as it has been doing in such cases.

We will continue to work closely with our local public health colleagues and with the wider City to ensure that we meet our obligations relating to the end of term. This includes liaising with other local universities and with travel providers.

In addition, we will obviously need to assess, in discussion with local public health bodies, the implications – if any – of any continuing local restrictions put in place following the end of the England-wide lockdown on 2 December.

Taken together, this package of actions means that we do not see a case for ending face-to-face teaching earlier than has been identified by the Department for Education.

We already have in place a mechanism for individual members of staff to raise with line managers any concerns they may have about their personal circumstances.

At present there has been no formal communication from Government about expectations of universities or students in the New Year. Our teaching will resume on 4 January, and we are currently expecting this will include some campus delivery. The precise blend of this will be determined by the prevailing Government guidelines and the advice of our local public health bodies. We will continue to provide a COVID-secure campus environment for all of our staff and students, and we will continue to offer, as we have this term, asymptomatic testing to students and eligible staff.

Kind regards,

Richard Middleton

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Email sent by UCU on 12/11/2020 to Richard Middleton Chief Operating Officer, Alex Neill Vice President Education, and Kieron Broadhead Exec Director Student Experience

Dear Richard 

In a well-attended branch General Meeting held on the 11th November, we consulted our members regarding the continuation of in-person teaching during lockdown and the recent government guidance on getting students home for Christmas.  During the meeting, the branch consulted with members on the following points:  

1: While fully accepting that some students may choose or need to stay in their University accommodation up to and even including the Christmas period, UCU believes that the University has a responsibility to ensure that those students who wish to leave can do so safely and as soon as possible. In order to facilitate this and reduce the risk of infections, which are climbing steadily in Southampton, a significant majority of members indicated they supported ceasing in-person teaching by November 16th. This date would allow students 2 weeks to self-isolate before returning home at the beginning of December. A later end to in-person teaching risks students who have tested positive being stranded in halls or private accommodation without essential familial and social support networks well into the Christmas vacation period. 

2: The Christmas vacation period is likely to involve students visiting areas of the country with high levels of transmission during a period traditionally characterised by social mixing. Members shared concerns that asking students to return to Southampton en masse in January would risk increased spread of the virus across the country and our community. January and February are also amongst the most pressured months for the NHS. Responding to these facts, a significant majority of members voted to request the University reduce the amount of in-person teaching between January and March. This will help keep the infection rate in Southampton and surrounding communities low. We note that Independent Sage has recommended that Universities offer students the choice of where to study in January and February for the same reasons and ask the University to seriously consider their recommendations.  

3: In the course of the meeting it also became clear that a great many of our members are concerned about the levels of autonomy they have in deciding what is essential, or most appropriate, for their teaching. Many members wish to determine for themselves how much in-person teaching is pedagogically essential, and to make decisions based on their individual circumstances rather than solely on the risk factors outlined by University policy, or blanket requirements for specified amounts of in-person teaching per module. We recall asking for this to be considered in the COO meeting on the 6th November and note that this was refused.  

In light of clear member concerns on this issue, we would like you to reconsider. Anxiety around in-person teaching is having a detrimental effect on the health and wellbeing of staff. We note that you have pointed out that universities should not be driven by a ‘one size fits all’ policy and that decisions need to be made by individual institutions based on the local environment. We ask that the same flexibility is offered to staff, many of whom have genuine concerns about in-person teaching, and the risks associated with commuting on public transport in order to deliver such teaching. It is very clear from our consultations with our members that adopting a more individual approach would not lead to an end to in-person teaching; many staff wish to continue to come to Campus and have the means to do so safely during this pandemic. For staff who must travel long distances on public transport, or have vulnerable family members, and for those whose mental health is suffering as a result of pressure to commute or work in environments they consider unsafe, the freedom to decide how to best fulfil their responsibilities and duties would do much to repair trust and boost morale.    

We remind you that our branch position, reached at the General Meeting on 15th September, has not changed and again draw your attention to the motion which was passed in that same meeting. We continue to oppose unnecessary in-person teaching, putting the safety and wellbeing of our members first. We understand that the University does not wish to move from its position of offering blended delivery. Nevertheless, we ask you to share our members’ views with UEB and request 1) a more flexible approach in determining when in-person teaching is needed; 2) for UEB to end in-person teaching wherever possible by 16 November to enable students to go home on 2nd December without compromising the safety of their families and communities; 3) for UEB to help reduce pressure on the NHS and protect our Southampton community by reducing in-person teaching where possible during the Jan-March period. 

In the interests of transparency, we will share this correspondence with members. We look forward to receiving your response. 

Southampton UCU executive committee  

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

 

 

Position statement: COVID-19 Safe return to Campus

We write in our capacity as your branch executive committee to state that we do not feel that Southampton University has yet demonstrated a plan which is clear and comprehensive enough to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission on campus to a safe level. Since students mingle freely with the wider community on buses, in cafes, bars, shops and other public spaces, and since they often travel home at weekends, any increase in infections in University settings will quickly spread among the wider community.

We believe that the safest way to reopen our campuses is to follow the guidance of the Independent SAGE report and recommend that all teaching should be online by default, unless it can be demonstrated that in-person teaching is pedagogically essential. Our view is informed by the Independent SAGE report on universities (20 August), the BMJ editorial ‘Re-opening universities is high risk’ (1 September) and the SAGE paper on SARS-CoV-2 transmission in higher education (4 September) and recent research, discussed in WonkHE. from Bristol University. We also note Warwick UCU’s call to move teaching online (18 August), UCU’s national call on reopening campuses (29 August), the UCU event on reopening universities and colleges (1 September), UCU Fund the Future and internal statements we have seen from other unions. We have also taken account of moves towards all-online teaching provision next term at other universities, including St Andrews, QMUL, UCL and Birkbeck.

Following expert advice, UCU identified 5 tests that must be met to make a return to campus safe for staff and students. Our appraisal of Southampton’s status vis-a-vis these tests follows:

Test 1: Sustained reduction in numbers of Covid-19 cases and infection rates

Not met: Government statistics suggest that cases of Covid-19 in the UK are rising at a substantial rate, particularly amongst those aged 17-20. We appreciate the University has limited power to affect this national picture, but these facts affect the risk and our ability to mitigate it nonetheless. We are extremely concerned that bringing students back prematurely poses a significant risk not only to staff, but to these students, their families (some students commute and some frequently travel home) and the wider community in Southampton.

Test 2: Coherent planning for social distancing

Not met: The university has put in place various control measures to encourage social distancing such as community messaging, signage, one-way systems, additional communal spaces. However, these steps do not adequately reduce risk to a safe level.  There remains no way to make in-person teaching within a shared breathing space safe. We do not yet know what degree of adherence students will demonstrate to these guidelines, nor what the University will do in the event of non-compliance. Furthermore, it is inevitable that students will mix when they are off campus, meaning transmission on campus – particularly via asymptomatic students – is extremely likely. In particular, we cannot see a coherent rationale for the University’s refusal to make mask-wearing compulsory on campus (with the standard medical exemptions)

Test 3: Comprehensive testing and contact tracing

Partially met: We welcome the recent announcement about the use of saliva testing for staff and students and are proud to have colleagues who have worked to produce this testing method. We note, however, that this project does not follow the BMJ recommendations that testing should be mandatory. We understand that the university has limited scope to enforce this, but while testing remains voluntary, we are concerned about the level of uptake. Many uncertainties remain.  We believe that test results will be received via text message, but we do not yet know what steps will be taken once positive tests are returned to trace those who have been in contact with the testee. What plans are in place to support students and staff who need to self-isolate and how quickly these arrangements can be made? Until these questions are answered, it is our view that testing and tracing cannot be said to be ‘comprehensive’.

Test 4: University- wide strategies for safe returns and continuing health and safety

Partially met: In a recent letter written by Health and Safety representatives from UCU, Unison and Unite, which we published on our blog, significant concerns were raised around consultation. We remain concerned that expert advice from unions is not being sought or taken into account sufficiently in the university’s planning and that there are significant gaps in terms of planning for the future. For example, what are the university’s plans in the event of an outbreak? What action will be taken in case of an outbreak in student halls? What will be the trigger for a return to online teaching in all or part of the University? What steps are being taken to prevent a potential on-campus outbreak from becoming an all-Southampton outbreak, amplified through shared public transport systems and facilities such as cafés, bars and shops? Is air-borne contamination being taken into consideration and how is it mitigated?

Test 5: Protection for those most vulnerable to COVID-19

Not met: The UCU’s national position is that “Staff who are themselves more vulnerable to Covid-19, and staff who live with people at heightened risk, must not be required to work on campus.” Throughout the summer, Southampton UCU has raised concerns with senior management about clinically extremely vulnerable staff, vulnerable staff and staff who are living with or caring for vulnerable people. These discussions are ongoing. Senior management continue to reassure us that the health and wellbeing of staff and students is their main priority, but we have received reports  of vulnerable staff and staff living with vulnerable people whose requests to work from home have been declined or are still to be decided. We have advised members in this position to ask the University to reconsider or respond to their requests; unless and until we hear that all such requests have been granted, we cannot state that Test 5 has been met. Further, we reiterate that we cannot support the University’s current policy of requiring vulnerable staff who feel unable to return to campus to take unpaid leave in cases where the University has decided that they cannot work from home. We call on the University to grant staff in this position paid disability leave.  We are also concerned that the University has declined flexible working agreements for parents/carers who have faced considerable challenges finding childcare during the pandemic.

In addition to the five tests not being met in full, we have registered serious concerns regarding the safe return to on-campus working.  These are addressed in the joint trade union health and safety letter which was sent to the Chief Operating Officer on Monday 7th September and is published on the SUCU blog. We are happy to work with senior management to seek solutions to these issues, but time is now extremely tight, and unless sufficient progress is made in reducing the risks on campus, we do not feel able to recommend these plans to our members.

Southampton UCU Executive Committee

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Motions passed at Extraordinary General Meeting 22nd July 2020

The branch held a well-attended Extraordinary General Meeting on Wednesday 22nd July at which the following motions were passed.

Local Branch Motion 1: Safety of colleagues, students, and visitors during the COVID-19 outbreak

This meeting notes the results of the openSAFELY study recently published in Nature:       https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2521-4_reference.pdf which convincingly show that the hazard associated with being aged over 50 outweighs almost all other risk factors; those of us over aged over 60 are at far greater risk than any other identified at-risk group.

We also note the current US CDC advice that, for example, people in their 50s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 40s.  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/older-adults.html

We contrast this science  with current UK government advice which associates no age-related risk factor to being clinically extremely vulnerable and only places those over 70 in the clinically vulnerable group:
      https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-shielding-and-protecting-extremely-vulnerable-persons-from-covid-19/guidance-on-shielding-and-protecting-extremely-vulnerable-persons-from-covid-19
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/staying-alert-and-safe-social-distancing/staying-alert-and-safe-social-distancing-after-4-july

The meeting also notes that the university does not currently require the wearing of face coverings for the protection of colleagues, but will do so when the students return for AY 20–21:       https://www.southampton.ac.uk/~assets/doc/Safe%20at%20Southampton.pdf  Inappropriately, for such an essential piece of safety equipment, no standard for “face coverings” is specified by the university. The  correct standard is BS EN 14683 type I. These, as the standard says, are used “to reduce the risk of the spread of infections particularly in epidemic or pandemic situations”; they can “be effective in reducing the emission of infective agents from the nose and mouth of an asymptomatic carrier or a patient with clinical symptoms”. The same paper also shows that non-white ethnicity is another risk factor which must be taken into account by H&S planning.

In these circumstances it is essential that the university introduces safety measures guided by the science; this has now moved far ahead of the UK government.

This meeting instructs the UCU branch safety officer, executive committee, and negotiators to seek:

  1. That the university’s planning ensures that at-risk colleagues visitors and students, including everybody aged over fifty, are properly protected from COVID-19. Formal age-related risk assessments must be prepared and agreed with Trade Unions before anybody over fifty is required to attend the workplace.
  2. That all persons using indoor university spaces with multiple occupation (even if not simultaneous) be required to wear face coverings to BS EN 14683 type I or better, at all times (notwithstanding any disabilities or illnesses that may prevent mask wearing). Sufficient quantities of such masks must be made available to all staff, students and visitors to allow single-use wear.

Proposer: Denis Nicole                                                  Seconder: Roger Ingham

MOTION PASSED

Local Branch Motion 2: Protecting casualised workers

Casualised workers make up approximately 70% of researchers nationally in HE, and between 25-30% of the teaching staff in many Universities. Women and BAME colleagues are disproportionately more likely to be employed on a casual contract. Like everybody, casualised University workers are struggling with the global crisis brought on by COVID-19, and are particularly likely to see their contracts terminated, or their hourly paid work vanish. While this crisis continues, casualised staff members across the university—often the lowest paid on campus—must not be forgotten, and should receive guaranteed income along with permanent staff.

This branch recognises that:

  • Departments will need increased capacity as a result of the crisis, given potential illness of colleagues and the switch to remote working, making the work done by casualised staff even more essential.
  • The threatened loss of casualised staff would exacerbate existing workload issues for all staff, including permanent staff, which would also impact on their research capacity and career progression.
  • That the crisis has exacerbated conditions in an already troubled job market, resulting in the potential for ‘CV gaps’ to irrevocably damage the career prospects of current and recent PhD graduates.

We retain a preference for permanent, possibly fractionalised, contracts, and against fixed term and casual employment. While we strive towards these goals, we must protect existing casualised and fixed-term colleagues.

This branch calls on the University’s management to:

  • Transparently (i) disclose financial models upon which decisions about contract non-renewal are predicated, and (ii) ensure all other cost savings are properly explored before considering cuts to staff, including fixed-term and casualised staff.
  • Support the principle of extending the contracts of all fixed term staff for a minimum of two years and guarantee clarity for hourly-paid contracted hours
  • Guarantee that any proposed redundancies or cuts in casualised staff will not result in an increase in the already unmanageable workloads of permanent members of staff.
  • Protect access to paid teaching and demonstrating work for postgraduate students, ensuring that they receive adequate training and work experience.

This branch calls on members to:

Proposer: Lucy Watson                                                 Seconder: Eleanor Wilkinson

MOTION PASSED

Local Branch Motion 3:   Authorisation of a Branch Donation to the National UCU Fighting fund

This Branch notes the email received by Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary, on 3 July 2020 to ask for a Branch donation to help replenish the national fighting fund, and reduce the need to apply the levy to lower-paid UCU members in Further and Higher Education across the sector. As the General Secretary has emphasised, replenishing the fighting fund is important to honour Strike Pay commitments to members who took part in industrial action in support of the Four Fights and USS industrial disputes in February and March.

While the Branch is shocked that HEC chose to offer strike pay that UCU could not afford without a secret levy, whis must never happen again, n order to help reduce the burden of the levy on lower-paid members both at this Branch and across the sector this Branch proposes:

  • To change the rules of the local Hardship Fund to permit the fund to reimburse the levy charge to members earning below £30,000.
  • To make a one-off donation of £4,500 to the UCU national fighting fund from General Branch Funds.

Proposer: Marianne O’Doherty                                                                 Seconder: Lucy Watson

MOTION PASSED

 

 

 

 

OPEN LETTER TO MUSIC STUDENTS ON UCU INDUSTRIAL ACTION – Southampton, 19 February 2020

Dear Music Students,

We, staff and PhD students in Music, are writing this letter to explain our position in the upcoming University and College Union industrial action. Many of us will be striking. Some will not, or not the whole time. All of us sympathise with what the UCU is asking for in the disputes, which involve 74 UK universities.

First, we know that this means trouble for you. None of us who are striking take this lightly. Indeed, we are not getting paid for the days we strike. We believe that strikes are a last resort. Unfortunately negotiations have not yet achieved a result that the UCU and its members feel they can accept, for themselves, for you and for the future of higher education in this country,

You recently received a communication from the university claiming that the strike is over “pay and pensions.” Actually it is about more than that:

  1. Casualisation. In our department most classroom teaching is still done by staff on full-time contracts. The national trend, however, is for universities to use more “casual” teaching staff on yearly, academic-year only or even zero-hours contracts, despite the introduction of £9K+ home and large increases to overseas student fees. The effect, especially on younger academics, has been impossibly high levels of stress. We know that some of our own graduates, top students who went on to do PhDs, now earn less than the “living wage” as lecturers at prestigious institutions.
  2. Workload. Compared to ten years ago, before the increases in fees, British universities spend less on people. There have been significant cuts to crucial front-line administrative staff and widespread hiring freezes. The result is more work for fewer workers. It is no surprise that academics and academic-related colleagues across the country are reporting record levels of stress, and increasingly stress-related illness. Most of us will tell you that the price of giving you the education you deserve is longer hours, frequently in excess of the 48 hours per week laid down by the European Working Time Directive, which remains British law. All of us want to do our very best by you, but the price is getting higher every year. Our working conditions are your learning conditions.
  3. Pay equality. At many British universities, including ours, there is a disgraceful gap in pay between men and women, and between White British colleagues and members of racial and ethnic minorities. At the University of Southampton across all subjects men earn 16% more than women on average. For years our employers have agreed with us that this is unacceptable–and not enough has changed. We demand action.
  4. Pay. Senior academics earn good money. But many of us did not find secure employment until we were older, and when we did we worked for low entry-level salaries. We accepted these conditions because we were deeply committed to our work, and knew that pay would improve with seniority. Yet in the past decade, since the increases in student fees, by conservative estimates our average pay has fallen 15% behind inflation, and behind compensation for similar work in the private sector. We ask that this loss be made up.
  5. Pensions. Academic pensions are attractive, roughly comparable to those of teachers or local government employees. But they are under pressure. In 2015 we accepted a significant decrease in our pensions to make them more affordable (we understand that people are living longer!). The result for all but the most senior of us was a substantial loss (£100s per month) in future pension income. In 2018 our employers tried to impose a “defined contribution” (instead of “defined benefit”) model, which would have resulted in losses of up to £1000 per month for mid-career and even more for junior colleagues. As a result there were strikes at many universities, including this one. These strikes ended when the employers withdrew their plans. They have yet to offer an acceptable alternative.

Some of us took action over all of these issues in November and December. Since then there has been some movement on casualisation, workload and equal pay. The UCU are happy that employers now recognise these as national issues, and have made specific suggestions to address them. But union negotiators cannot accept these without mechanisms of enforcement. On pay the offer currently on the table (1.8%) is not acceptable because it is below most measures of inflation and does nothing to address the many years of relative decline. Employers have made a series of alternative suggestions about pensions, but are refusing to agree to pay for what these would cost.

Negotiations are in a critical phase. Those of us who are going on strike do so because we believe that only pressure on employers will convince them to move the short distance that separates us. If they do, and the UCU accepts their offer, those of us who plan to strike will return to work immediately.

What you can do if you support us:

  • Write to the Vice Chancellor, Prof Mark E. Smith (emailvc@soton.ac.uk). Although he has not been here long most of us have experienced him as a friendly and open person. Let him know, politely, and in your own words, that you are on the side of your teachers and the staff who support your learning, and that you would like him to use his influence to end this long and draining dispute.
  • Talk to your friends and family. Educate yourselves and them about what is at stake here: your learning conditions, and those of the students who come after you.
  • Come out and support us. This Thursday, 20 February, Music staff will be picketing near Building 2 from 10-11 and then attending a rally in Jubilee Plaza. Show your support. Bring your instruments. Come and sing with us!

Yours sincerely,

 

Tom Irvine

David Bretherton

Dan Mar-Molinero

Valeria de Lucca

Ben Oliver

Richard Polfreman

Drew Crawford

Francesco Izzo

Mark Everist

Bastian Terraz

Matthew Shlomowitz

Jane Chapman

Diana Venegas

Kate Hawnt

Ryan Ross

Peter Falconer

Catherine Fabian

Jeanice Brooks

Anisha Netto

Clare Merivale

Gintaré Stankeviciute

David Alcock

Clarissa Brough

Mary-Jannet Leith

Jamie Howell

Andy Fisher

 

The case for climate action

Guest blog from Dr. Philip Goodwin, Associate Professor in Earth Systems Dynamics,  School of Ocean and Earth Sciences.

 

As a scientist working in the field of climate change and the carbon cycle, I believe strongly that urgent action is needed.

The truth is, climate change is not a new problem. People have known about the potential for human-caused changes in Earth’s climate for a very long time. The ability of different greenhouse gasses to trap heat was measured back in the 1850s and 1860s. It was quickly realised that if the atmosphere held more of a particular greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, then the climate would be generally warmer.

People have also known that burning fossil fuels, and clearing and burning forests, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been measured continuously since the late 1950s. By the late 1970s it was obvious that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was going up year-after-year, and that human emissions were the cause. Measurements now show that carbon dioxide levels are rising ever faster, because each year more fossil fuels are burnt and more forests are cleared.

A big problem with carbon dioxide is that it is difficult to remove from the atmosphere once it has been put there. Some of the carbon dioxide we emit goes into the ocean, and some gets taken up by land, but the rest will stay in the atmosphere keeping the Earth’s climate warmer than it would be naturally for thousands of years.

Daily temperature records at many locations across the globe have been taken for a long time, with a number of records going back as far as the 1850s. Different teams around the world have looked at the available temperature measurements, and all have agreed on what they mean for Earth’s average surface temperature: so far, temperatures are around 1 degree Centigrade warmer than they were in the late 1800s. The only way we can explain this 1 degree warming is by considering the impacts humans have had on the atmosphere, principally the increase in carbon dioxide.

If nothing is done to limit fossil fuel use and the clearing of forests, then the further increases in carbon dioxide are due to cause Earth’s temperatures to rise by another 3 or 4 degrees Centigrade by the end of this century. Such additional warming would have drastic and devastating consequences. To avoid the most serios consequences of man-made climate change, most of the world’s nations have already signed up to keeping global temperatures less than 2 degrees warmer than it would naturally be, and take steps to achieve just 1.5 degrees warming.

All this shows why it is so important to act quickly now, and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit every year. The less carbon we emit now, the less warming future generations will have to cope with. Eventually, to stop climate warming further, we will have to live in a completely carbon-neutral society.

The more quickly we can achieve a carbon-neutral society, and phase out fossil fuels altogether, the less warming future generations will face. Urgent and significant action is now required: to stop warming going above 1.5 degrees Centigrade, assuming we start emissions reductions now, we will need to reach a carbon-neutral society by the year 2050.

All the information needed to make good decisions for our future climate is out there, and has been for a long time. This is an urgent problem that is only going to get worse unless good decisions are made, both on individual and governmental levels. This is why I am keen to see meaningful action on climate – now.

 

 

Counting the cost of casualisation

The current strike ballot on pay, workload, and equality highlights the problems faced by casualised staff. These could be staff on fixed-term contracts (like the vast majority of our early career researchers) or those on hourly-paid or zero-hours contracts, with staff working for a relatively small number of hours per semester (such as with some of our teaching (and other) staff).

A UCU survey from earlier this year prompted 67 responses from Southampton University staff (1.8% of total respondents). The report explored financial insecurity within this group, with respondents to the survey clearly reporting real problems resulting from the precariousness of their income – see tables below copied from the report.

About 60% of respondents have experienced problems with making ends meet, 40% with paying bills, and 30% with paying their rent.

Have you experienced any of the following issues as a result of your employment on insecure contracts? Numbers answering yes Percentage
Problems securing rented accommodation 571 28%
Problems paying rent 613 29.8%
Problems getting a loan 562 27.4%
Problems paying bills 828 40.3%
Problems making ends meet 1228 59.8%
Problems with VISA status 149 7.3%
Problems accessing or maintaining access to benefits 263 12.8%

 

Staff also reported high levels of stress – caused in part by financial insecurity but also by the nature of the work depending on the contract (such as not enough time to prepare, no dedicated workspace and so on).

On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 = not stressful at all and 10 = extremely stressful, how stressful do you find working on an insecure contract?
  Numbers of responses Percentage of respondents
10 (extremely stressful) 649 24.6%
9 472 17.9%
8 682 25.9%
7 391 14.8%
6 163 6.2%
5 105 4%
4 46 1.7%
3 75 2.8%
2 22 0.8%
1 (not stressful) 33 1.3%

 

For the full report and all findings see Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education – Key findings of a survey June 2019.

Casualisation can mean insecurity, inability to progress and unfair disadvantage. Whilst short-term contracts are often embedded in current research funding models, the recent UCU survey showed that the large majority (97% of respondents) on a fixed-term contract would rather be on a permanent contract, while 80% of those who were hourly-paid would rather be on a contract that guaranteed them hours, even if it meant less flexibility.

The HESA figures for 2017/18 show that of the 2,995 academic staff in the University of Southampton, 1,235 are on fixed-term contracts. We do not have figures for how many are on hourly paid contracts locally. We would like to hear from members here about their experiences of casualised contracts, the impact on themselves, on colleagues and on students. Write in confidence direct to ucu@soton.ac.uk.

And in the context of the current ballot, we urge members to vote to end rising job insecurity.

 

20th September – support the climate strike

If you can, please come along to the rally at the Jubilee Plaza, Highfield Campus from 12pm on Friday 20th September. Bring with you placards/ posters and other messages of support if you want to.

If you cannot attend but want to offer your support you can use the national hashtag #climatestrike and #UCUclimatesolidarity, making sure you copy in @southamptonUCU and @Unisouthampton so we can circulate your message. We are pleased that the University management is supporting the rally and they are extending the invitation to all staff to attend.

We are also encouraging people to respond to the following two statements, outlining the individual and collective changes you want to see relating to the environmental impact of the university.

  1. I pledge to…
  2. I call on the university to…

You can either share your ideas at the rally or tweet/ email us using the details above. Given this is a rally related to the environment, we encourage people to be creative with their use of materials for placards and suggestions, using recycled paper and materials where you can.

Why are we doing this?

We are organising the rally to pledge our support for the Climate Strike and the young strikers taking action against climate injustice. We also hope the rally provides an opportunity for us to come together as a university community to confirm our commitment to reducing our impact on the climate and we are pleased that the university and other campus trade unions are joining with us for this important event.

Since February, millions of students across the globe have been striking from school and college to protest climate injustice. Their action has contributed to governments across the world declaring a climate emergency. Yet, without sustained effort, such declarations will not be enough. Global temperature rise will pass a dangerous tipping point within the lifetime of young people alive today if action to halt climate change isn’t taken – we are running out of time. So, to keep up the pressure on leaders, young strikers have appealed to the trade union movement to support them in their struggle, with 20 September the given date for this action to take place.  You can read more about UCU’s approach nationally here and the Youth Strike4 Climate campaign here.

Future plans

This is the first action we have organised of this kind, so it is just the start. We will work in partnership with the other campus trade unions, students and the wider staff body to develop proposals that can move us closer to meeting our commitments to the environment. If you would like to be involved in this ongoing campaign work, let us know.