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Correspondence with senior management regarding return of students in 2021

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

Dear Southampton UCU executive committee,

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

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

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

With all best wishes for a peaceful and restorative break,

Alex and Richard

Professor Alex Neill
Vice-President

Richard Middleton

Chief Operating Officer

 

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

 

Dear Richard and Alex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southampton UCU executive committee

 

 

Results of Southampton UCU survey of PGR and Hourly Paid staff

Southampton UCU surveyed PGR and hourly paid members from 26th October to 12 November 2020. In total, 38 postgraduate researchers (PGR) or hourly paid members responded to the survey. The purpose was to gather information on how our most precariously employed members have been affected by the pandemic and return to campus activities. We will use these responses in our negotiating meetings with management and to inform local UCU strategy moving forward.  The following document comprises a summary of the main findings and includes strong statements of dissatisfaction by casualised workers at the University of Southampton about their treatment during this time, summarised in the statement below.

“The University attitude towards PGRs has been cynical and reckless in this situation. We are taking much of the risk, and we’re even getting lower pay in real terms (before, 45-minute time slots, now 60-minute time slots for the same nominal hourly pay)”
Southampton PGR.

Effect of COVID-19 on work offered

We wanted to know how casualised members’ work allocation has been affected this year. In total, 74.36% of survey respondents have been offered work this semester. Of those offered work, all of the survey respondents accepted the work offered. When asked to explain the reasons behind this decision, the vast majority noted the need for money, to pay bills or secure their income during a period of uncertainty. Members also reported:

  • Needing the experience of teaching
  • Wanting to help out staff and students in their department
  • Feeling able to accept the work as it was mostly remote or virtual but wouldn’t have done so if it was in-person.

Two reported having to do teaching as part of studentship conditions. Of these, they were both undertaking in-person teaching, which raises further questions about the exploitative nature of these studentship contracts.

Question six focused on how the offer of work has been affected by the COVID-19 response. As the bar chart below shows, our members report a mixed impact.

 

In total, 38.24% have had less work offered than expected this year but 20.59% have had more work offered, meanwhile 41.18% have the same amount of work. Of those who had less work offered, the majority came from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, but at least one respondent from each of the five faculties reported having less work. Meanwhile, of those offered more work these were almost entirely in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical sciences.

Of those who have had the same work offered, members reported being offered work very late. For example, one member wrote “I had originally been told that there was no teaching budget this year. It was only with a week’s notice that I was asked if I could teach on the module.”

Nature of work

We wanted to know whether PGRs and hourly paid staff are doing a disproportionate amount of in person teaching relative to their permanent counterparts. We also wanted to know how safe members felt doing in person teaching and whether their status as hourly paid workers affected this.

Overall, 81.4% reported their teaching was mostly online and only 3 respondents (11.11% of survey sample) had mostly in-person teaching.  On the whole, respondents reported they did feel safe to do in person teaching, though there were only 12 responses for this question as it was intended for those undertaking in-person work and not all respondents are.  Those who didn’t feel safe reported:

“There was no H&S Consultation with staff, we were not asked if we or our families belong to vulnerable groups, both hand sanitizers in the main corridor on Avenue campus are empty (the were there before Covid and they were also empty then),”

“The workshop doesn’t need to be delivered in person, and is supposed to be delivered in groups. But I will have to keep the students apart realistically. Would be easier to facilitate this on Teams given the current situation.”

One member who voted they did feel safe, commented “Perhaps safe is too much, but I cannot say I feel unsafe. I acknowledge the university has made an effort”. This captured the written responses, with members who reported feeling safe listing some of the measures taken by the university in connection with the specifics of the members teaching obligations. Reasons included:

  • The small number of students in the class
  • That the member was only teaching a limited number of seminars (2 in total)
  • The screen arrangements and wearing of facemasks
  • Good supply of PPE in a clinical environment

In response to question 12, 63.16% felt that in-person teaching has not been equally distributed across staff profiles at the university.

When asked to explain their answer, there was a mixed response. Members reported no consistency within the health and safety strategy of the university. Several members expressed frustration that PGRs are being asked to do the majority of in person teaching. One member stated pressure of PGRs to do the work and another stated:

“Absolutely not, at least in my faculty. A big part of the in-person teaching has been left to PGRs. Most academics have been comfortably teaching from home or even releasing pre-recorded stuff.”

However, a significant number of respondents said this didn’t know and an error of this question was not to include a “not sure” option. Additionally, some members interpreted this question as asking whether work as a whole had been allocated equally and expanded on question 6, discussing how casual workers have lost work during the pandemic and the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on them.

Health and safety

In total, 66.67% of respondents have registered for the Southampton COVID-19 testing program. Two members (9.52% respondents) were not aware of the scheme and five have not enrolled for another reason that was not specified. The majority report being registered under their student not staff status and 61.54% answered they did not feel the inclusion criteria adequately includes colleagues needing to be on campus.

When asked about the level of health and safety guidance hourly paid workers had received 57.14% reported they do not feel that have been offered the same level of health and safety guidance as permanent colleagues.

 

The reasons members gave for answering no to this question ranged from having no guidance at all sent on in-person teaching, to only receiving guidance via the graduate school after in-person teaching had already started. One member reports having to ask for information about in person teaching and when it was sent there was no training or guidance, just a generic risk assessment sent. Furthermore, unlike permanent colleagues who have had individual risk assessments, hourly paid members report not being asked if they have any health concerns or if they care for a vulnerable person. Consequently, hourly paid staff describe taking on a higher share of the risk than permanent colleagues. This is exacerbated by the lack of sick pay for casual workers, something we expand on below.

Concerns regarding health and safety guidance was not limited to in-person activities but also arrangements for working from home. Members report inadequate information on home working and no eligibility for equipment to support home working.

An error in the wording of this question was omitting an unsure or N/A option. Those who skipped this question report not being sure or not having enough information on what permanent staff have been told to make a judgement.

Finally, we asked members if they can self-isolate if required and asked members to explain their answer. 96.88% of respondents said they were able to and only one respondent said they weren’t. In their explanations members focused on the practical aspects of self-isolation such as whether they had friends who could deliver food. While it is positive the majority said they can self-isolate, we are still unsure whether the lack of sick pay means hourly paid workers will self-isolated if required to.

As one member said “If I become sick, I face financial hardship – there is no support scheme that I am aware of and I cannot claim sick pay”.

The issue of sick pay was discussed in our final question on what our members want UCU to fight for on their behalf. The majority of respondents want SUCU to fight for guaranteed sick pay for hourly paid workers.

Pay and workload concerns

We asked if members had anything else to add regarding COVID-19 and the University of Southampton. Members raised a number of significant issues regarding pay and workload as a result of the University of Southampton covid-19 response, which we discuss below.

On pay, respondents expressed multiple issues with pay which have been exacerbated by covid-19. The change in allocated teaching from 45 minutes to 1 hour has increased the amount of teaching time worked and preparation time needed with no increase in pay or hours of work claimable to reflect this change. Additionally, members report that online teaching takes longer to prepare, which has not been considered in the calculation for claimable preparation time. Some departments continue not to allocate preparation time for PGR demonstrators at all.

Members are also incurring additional costs as part of the move to online teaching, which they report being unable to claim back. For example, one member stated “I got myself an ethernet cable to help with connectivity, that cost an hour of my pay”. Finally, members reported having increasing pastoral and welfare roles with undergraduate students this year and they do not feel supported in this or paid for this additional workload. All this is compounded by the continued lack of paid training for PGRs and limited training opportunities for hourly paid staff. Those seeking to provide quality education in an online environment are spending a significant amount of unpaid labour hours learning and preparing for classes. Combined, this leaves PGR and hourly paid staff unsupported and undervalued as summarised by the comments below:

“We are all are highly educated and highly skilled workers, what we get is a third world hourly rate. It shows how little the Uni value us, although without us the whole system would collapse in a blink of a eye…”

“casual staff are the lowest of the low. So, I don’t expect the university, as an organisation, to do anything for me. The university only respects its permanent staff”.

“Overall it feels like the university management doesn’t care about us but neither does it care about the undergrads- surely everyone can see that being taught by a PGR with very little training, less than a weeks notice and who isn’t getting paid sufficient to cover all the prep time is not a good educational experience?”

 

Hourly paid members and PGRs also report feeling generally uninformed about critical departmental policies and decisions. This is hard when students ask questions and tutors have no idea on what to say. As one member commented:

“We feel really out of the loop. I have no real idea what is going on in the wider course or department decisions, the students come to us with questions and I have absolutely no idea because we are as much in the dark as them”.

All of the issues discussed in this report exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress and poor communication from the university was discussed by respondents as a contributing factor to this.

Members expressed “I feel communication has been poor and we are expected to just “carry on as normal”.

“While the financial caution of the university is understandable, the response of freezing new hiring and the uncertainty around the number of students for deferred international programs makes it very difficult to feel secure about the fact that there will be work available at all. It does not feel that the university takes into account the stress that these circumstances cause for casual staff especially, or how difficult it is to plan your life around such circumstances”.

What hourly paid & PGRs want from their UCU branch

We asked members to tick which actions they want the Southampton UCU branch to prioritise out of five options. Of these:

  • 88% of respondents want SUCU to campaign for guaranteed sick pay for any isolating member of staff, casual or otherwise
  • 82% want all information on health and safety to go to casual workers, including PGRs (whether they teach or not).
  • 64% want SUCU to campaign for paid training for casual workers
  • 42% want SUCU to campaign for a review of workload for hourly paid staff considering the new timetable.
  • 33% want SUCU to set up regular meetings between PGRs and management

Other priorities identified by members include:

  • SUCU should campaign for more marking to be given to PGRS to make up for lost teaching time and pay which will also benefit permanent colleagues by alleviating workload.
  • In line with the decision of our Higher Education Sector conference, one member commented that “UCU must fight for PGRs to be classified as workers. This is the first and only priority. Once this is obtained, the rest comes almost automatically”.
  • Members also want us to review the workload for online teaching and marking, alongside the review of an extra 15 minutes of teaching time per class.  As one member wrote “this takes significantly more time to prepare and conduct than face-to-face teaching, however this is not at all acknowledged in the hours that are offered”.

What SUCU will ask from managers

  • UCU would like assurances that vulnerable staff, including PGRS and those on hourly paid contracts, are able to have individual risk assessments put in place, regardless of contract type.
  • UCU would like management to ensure that PGRs and hourly paid staff have the appropriate and necessary equipment to carry out their teaching. These essential staff members are some of the lowest paid on our campuses and should not be expected to finance this themselves.
  • UCU would like assurances that studentships are not being used to require some students to undertake in-person activity disproportionately, and that they are not being pressured into taking on teaching they would not do otherwise.
  • UCU asks that management commits to ensuring any hourly paid workers unable to teach in person or online due to sickness is guaranteed sick pay, for the protection of all and the financial security of our members.
  • UCU asks that management implement a workload review based on the substantial extra preparation time required for online teaching and the decision to increase teaching slots from 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  • UCU asks for recognition by senior management of the contribution hourly paid staff and PGRs make to the delivery of teaching and learning in the institution and a commitment to improving their terms and conditions of work.

 

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  

UCU concerns regarding blended teaching and Tier 1 status – correspondence with senior management 

Following the announcement from the UK Government over the weekend regarding the new lockdown guidance, UCU wrote to the University Executive Board requesting that they reconsider their plans for blended online and face to face teaching, and review the current Tier 1 status.  Please find below the original email and the response from Richard Middleton, the University’s Chief Operating Officer.

 

From: Chief-Operating-Officer
Sent: Tue 03/11/2020 08:07
Subject: UCU concerns regarding blended teaching and Tier 1 status

Dear colleagues in UCU

Thank you for the email you sent to UEB Members on Monday.  As you know, we are due to meet on Friday (with Unite and Unison representative also) and – as always – I am of course happy for us to discuss these issues in detail when we meet.

In advance of that conversation, I did want to make a number of points:

  • Last night Universities Minister Michelle Donelan wrote to Vice-Chancellors to say that the guidance the Government is finalising for Higher Education will make clear to universities, and to students: “We do not, however, want or expect to see a transition to full online learning during the new national restrictions – this could jeopardise the learning that students receive, as well as risk their mental health and wellbeing. We want you to make informed local decisions whilst ensuring all students have some form of face to face learning, where possible and safe to do so.” I attach a copy of the letter for your information, and her letter to all students.
  • The Minister also comments:  “I know just how hard HEPS have worked to put in place measures to ensure teaching and learning is provided in COVID-secure environments, and we have not seen evidence of increased transmission within these environments”.
  • I am aware of course that there is a national UCU campaign; I trust our discussion on Friday can focus on the local context of Southampton. One size, and one approach, does not suit all. In assessing the balance of online and in person teaching, we need to take account of our own local context and circumstances– this includes the current relatively low comparative rates of COVID cases at the University; the major programme of asymptomatic saliva testing we are offering to students and eligible staff, which is growing; the extensive investment we have made in creating COVID-secure campuses (praised by staff and students alike); and – in discussion with public health authorities – an overall assessment of the public health risks, including to the mental health of students, and staff, and the state of local outbreaks.
  • Of course some staff, and indeed some students, may share your viewpoint and I am fully aware that view is not shared by other staff, and other students. These are complex issues, with many viewpoints, and it is important we hear those voices so we can balance the needs and concerns of all our staff and students. The UEB takes its responsibilities extremely seriously, and we are currently reviewing the situation and the prevailing Tier level very regularly.
  • We are of course also acutely aware of the wider city context in which we operate, which you referred to. As the Vice-Chancellor has explained previously, that is why we are in near daily contact with the Director of Public Health for Southampton City Council and with Public Health England, and why we are in very regular contact with the local Health Protection Board, the Director of Public Health for Hampshire County Council, and Hampshire police. They will not hesitate to intervene if they are concerned about increased community risk, and we would not hesitate to take action. We also know from talking to local businesses that the return of students is seen as a welcome boost to the city’s economy, and we have ensured we are keeping in close contact with local residents’ groups, councillors and MPs.

I look forward to our discussion on Friday.

Best wishes

Richard

Richard Middleton

Chief Operating Officer

From: ucu <ucu@soton.ac.uk>
Sent: 02 November 2020 18:02
Subject: UCU concerns regarding blended teaching and Tier 1 status

Dear UEB members

After the UK Government’s new lockdown guidance of 1 November 2020 and the Vice-Chancellor’s email of today (02/11) setting out UEB’s response, we note that UEB has agreed to continue with the same ‘comprehensive blend of face-to-face and online teaching’ that the University has been offering since the start of term, and that the University plans to remain at ‘Tier 1’ in DfE terms.

Though these decision have been made pending further clarification from Government, we believe that there is enough information in the government guidance to make further changes for the health and safety of staff, students, and the local community.  In particular, we want to emphasize the following points:

  • It was made clear in the Governmental briefings that cases were also rising fastest in the South; cases are comparatively low in the region now, but this is no cause for complacency. Minimising transmission must be a central goal, particularly when we consider the wellbeing of our students both in lockdown and during the lead-up to Christmas.
  • It looks very damaging—in terms of reputation if nothing else—for the University to continue to compel staff and students to travel through communities to deliver or receive teaching that could be provided online (in cases where in-person teaching is non-essential). In the event that community outbreaks worsen around the University whilst other businesses and families are making great enormous sacrifices to limit transmission, we risk a backlash that could cause damage to our reputation and local relationships.
  • The Government advice, as we understand it, is that universities are to remain open, but that workers are strongly advised to work at home if at all possible and that “Universities… should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible.” Prima facia, these guidelines are best implemented by staff delivering teaching online wherever possible. In any event, it appears to be the responsible step both in terms of safety and pedagogy, given the fast-changing nature of events.
  • It is clear that it is the university’s and all of our civic duty to contribute to the effort to bring the R rate and growth rate down so that students and staff might be able to join friends and family during the holidays. We are in a position to do this by moving all teaching online unless in person is required for lab or practice-based teaching. We are also conscious of students’ term-time mental health and wellbeing, but we remain concerned about the wider situation that might mean any continuation of the f2f status quo will cause greater difficulty for students’ and staffs’ mental and physical health in the long run.

As ever, we appreciate that UEB have stated its intention to work closely with campus trade unions. We are very keen to discuss these steps mutually, so that we can offer a staff perspective on how we can jointly navigate this difficult challenge in a way that safeguards students, staff and the goals of the University.

We look forward to hearing back from you.

Southampton UCU

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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

SUCU Requests for information: Active Campus and University Finances

Over the past month SUCU has been asking for trade union representation on the high-level decision-making group ‘Active Campus’. The knowledge and expertise of TU H&S reps are invaluable and can help direct senior leaders in their discussions about how to open up our campuses safely. Our H&S officer, Adam Dunn, wrote to the Chief Operating Officer on 21st July to request, once again, for representation:

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SUCU received the following response from Richard Middleton on the 23rd July: 

“Dear Adam

Thank you for your letter of 21 July seeking representation of a UCU Health and Safety representative on the Active Campus Group, and in turn seeking representatives from the other trades unions.

This is a group of Executive Directors in Professional Services – my direct reports – meeting as a group of senior managers to make plans for the operation of the campus from September onwards, ensuring that we meet our obligations to students and fulfilling our managerial roles.   In doing so we are naturally utilising the experience of University staff working in Professional Services.  It is not a group to which I would invite trade union representation.

As you will know, I and the HR team and Health and Safety Director have been meeting regularly, mostly weekly, with representatives of all the campus trades unions for several months and I have committed to keeping those regular meetings informed of how plans for the Autumn term are developing.  I believe that regular discussion has been working well and is consistent with our mutual commitments to improving relationships.

Trades union representatives participated in the development of guidance and protocols for returning to work during May and June.  Those groups were very successful and I am grateful for the trades union contributions and the positive spirit with which that work was undertaken.  It was a good example of our cooperation.

The University consults with trades unions consistently on health and safety and of course most comprehensively at the Health and Safety Consultative Committee.  I am confident also that there are good daily working relationships between University staff, especially those working in health and safety, and the trades union health and safety representatives.

With best wishes,

Richard”

In a recent meeting, the COO agreed to share with SUCU officers a precis of the discussions which are taking place on Active Campus. While this development is welcome, we do not feel that this is equivalent to having TU reps actually present for these discussions.

SUCU has also been asking for more detailed financial information to be shared with the executive committee in order that we can be fully informed about the University’s financial situation. We are asking to see concrete evidence that there is a case for the ‘cost savings’ measures the Vice Chancellor has informed us might be required. On the 21st July we emailed the Chief Operating Officer again about this:

Dear Richard,

We are holding an EGM tomorrow to discuss UCU’s national Fund the Future campaign and we will be discussing the VC’s recent email. I am writing to follow-up on a request made at JJNC 25th June to provide full financial disclosure so that unions have a complete understanding of the parameters of the university’s financial decision-making. The actions state that this was fulfilled on the 8th July but in the finances meetings we have attended since then we have pressed for more detail. Specifically, SUCU would like data on the following:

  • The full overall budget for 2020/21 and predicted scenarios (not just the summary that has been submitted to Council for approval)
  • A breakdown of the projected loss to income, making it clear how much of this drop in income is offset by originals plans to run a surplus.
  • Full figures on the cash reserves the University has which may be able to absorb any projected losses.
  • Full figures on any liquid assets the University has which could be turned to into cash if needed.
  • What percentage of offsetting measures are being levied against staff costs, and have the University fully considered making cuts elsewhere?
  • What budget for capital expenditure is planned for 2020/21? Is this work essential?

We would also like answers to the following questions:  

  • Are management worried about breaching agreements made with lenders about how to run the institution? Do we have any covenants that stipulate that the institution should meet a certain level of business performance each year?
  • Has management considered how the proposed cuts will affect the ability of our institution to bounce back in future years? Have management modelled any changes to future income?
  • Has management researched the government business loans scheme to see whether the university if eligible for this support? 

More detailed information is essential if we are to contribute fully to discussions around cost-savings. We urge you to share this crucial financial information with us as soon as possible.

Many thanks,

Lucy Watson (SUCU President)”

On 23rd July, we received this reply:

“Dear Lucy

Thank you for your email.  I regret that I was not able to reply within the day of your request, but of course I want to respond before we meet this afternoon for our regular discussion.  I will address each of your questions in turn

1.       Full overall budget for 2020/21.  There isn’t yet a full budget for 2020/21 because of the uncertainty about our income for 2020/21. We expect to take a final budget to Council in November.  This will likely still retain a level of uncertainty because of the January international PGT intake.  We don’t have “predicted scenarios” – we model scenarios following the same sort of approach at IFS and London economics. The VC’s email of 1 July gave the headlines of this scenario work.

2.       Breakdown of projected loss to income.  The baseline budget is an internal planning document worked up according to our strategic plan which is to deliver a surplus each year to generate cash for investment.  In the VC’s email he referred to a drop of £70m in income, in a moderate to severe scenario.  We think it is prudent to prepare plans consistent with that figure; but, as I say in the first point, we also expect that to change as we gain more information about actual enrolments.

3.       Full figures of cash reserves – are available in 2018/19 financial statements, which are published and those have not changed materially.  The extent to which these “may be able to absorb any losses” depends on their intended use – capital investment remains a strategic priority.

4.       Liquid assets – this information is also available in the financial statements, represented by cash and investments.

5.       Offsetting measures levied against staff costs – We are looking at offsetting potential losses against non-staff and staff costs as well as cash.  Until we understand the actual impacts of student recruitment and the length of the challenge we have not yet got firm plans yet on any specific percentage in each of those areas.  We are as you know maintaining very strict controls on non-pay spend and are holding down recruitment and replacement of staff.  As we have shared with you, we hope to achieve further reductions in staff spend through voluntary measures if at all possible. 

6.       We also have not currently set a budget for capital for next year, again we are awaiting November.  Nevertheless planning for capital investments, especially in the estate, continues, consistent with the University’s strategy.

As the VC said in his email:

“This loss of income would need to be mitigated in three ways: through significant reductions in our planned operating expenditure by maintaining the same level of rigorous control and scrutiny as we have done since March, including scaling back our planned capital expenditure; through reducing our staff costs – our single largest investment; and through careful use of our cash reserves. Our intention will be to use a balance of all three in order to maintain our prospects for recovery, which is likely to take more than a single year.

“I know there is a considerable appetite for information and detail. I want to be open with you about what we are doing, and why. The levels of uncertainty are immense, and I know that is frustrating for all of us. However I am confident that our approach is sensible, and that we will ensure we regularly test our assumptions against what turns out to be reality and adapt our planning accordingly, and that we will neither take action before we need to, nor leave it too late to take action.”

In response to your final three bulleted questions:

We do have covenants on borrowing which we are monitoring and modelling.  We are looking at longer term impacts and the VC email makes clear the high-level principles we are using to govern our decision making. We are exploring actively all the options Government is making available and assessing their benefit to our long-term sustainability.  

Best wishes

Richard”

SUCU will continue to press for more information on the current and projected financial situation at the University so that we can better represent all staff in our discussions with senior management.