University staff react to Sage advice to move teaching online


Union members at the University of Sheffield are among those calling for answers
Danny Lawson/PA Wire/PA Images

University staff and unions are considering next steps after it was revealed yesterday that Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) had recommended three weeks ago that university teaching should move online amid a spike in coronavirus cases.

Members of the University and College Union at the universities of Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds and Warwick have called emergency meetings after lodging formal grievances with leadership, according to a report in The Guardian.

The Sage documents, which date back to 21 September, were published on Monday evening and included the recommendation that all university and college teaching should be carried out online “unless absolutely essential”, but that schools could continue teaching face-to-face.

Sage also recommended the government implement a short ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown of two or three weeks to bring down the number of coronavirus cases.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Ministers were given clear recommendations on how to stem the spread of the virus before term started at the vast majority of universities.

“They could have taken swift and decisive action then and instructed universities to move their teaching online to mitigate against tens of thousands of students moving across the country.

“The chaos we see on campus and in halls of residence now is a direct result of ministers’ decision to ignore that advice and choose to put the health of university staff, students and local communities at risk.”

In September, the UCU said it had been inundated with calls for support from staff working on precarious contracts who were fearful of working face-to-face. Since students returned to university this autumn, an estimated 110 institutions have reported cases of Covid-19. At one point 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University had been asked to self-isolate.

Unison, which represents many non-teaching staff at universities, has also been dealing with concerns from members who have received threats and abuse from frustrated students who are stuck in isolation in halls.

Senior national education officer at Unison, Ruth Levin, said that support staff had been “caught in the crossfire”.

“​Local or mobile testing units ​are needed on every campus and the ​government has got to get to grips with the test-and-trace system,” she said.

“If the ​testing system was working properly, healthy students wouldn’t be locked down and staff wouldn’t have to deal with violence, a​buse and ​huge increase​s ​in workloads, with little extra support​ from university managers.

“Staff have been working flat out to keep universities going and​, considering the pressures they’re under, they’re doing a remarkable job.

“​But without proper funding for universities​, many ​are at risk of losing their jobs. University managers and government ministers need to recognise that, take responsibility and end the campus crisis.”

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