The UCU branch committee emailed the University of Leeds vice chancellor on Tuesday 29 September 2020 in response to the message from the university “Arrangements in the new academic year – a message from the Vice-Chancellor” (opens in new tab) received Friday 25 September 2020.
On behalf of Leeds UCU, I’d like to welcome your statement to staff. We are absolutely in agreement with you that the most important priority is to protect the health and safety of the entire University community. And we are very glad that you are encouraging more use of online teaching during the COVID period. The university approach until now has been that schools must provide some face to face teaching, including those schools who had planned for fully online, and it’s good to see concerns about safety now overriding the hybrid model. However, we would encourage you to go a step further, and insist that the only activities that should take place on campus are those which are impossible to do any other way (eg some practical sessions). Tutorials, seminars and other small group teaching, supervisions, careers appointments and so on can be done very effectively online (and indeed have been done online since the campus lockdown in March). This is in line with the recommendations from yesterday’s emergency report by the independent SAGE group, and we would urge the university to follow those recommendations (copied below) in full.
The campus trade unions have worked closely with university Health and Safety staff to make the campus environment as safe as possible, and our input to this has been welcomed. UCU’s view now is that, with increased rates of COVID-19 nationally and locally, the university must limit as far as is possible the amount of activity on campus, in order to reduce the risk to everyone, including essential workers and the staff teaching and supporting those activities which can only be done on campus.
We are also glad to see your emphasis on student and staff mental health and wellbeing. We can see from what’s already happened in Scotland, and now in nearby northern universities like Liverpool and Manchester, that outbreaks amongst students are highly likely, as was predicted by scientific modelling. Being ill or having to isolate in an unfamiliar place, and not being able to socialise, must be awful for students, especially new students who won’t have an established support network. We are concerned that students should not be blamed for local outbreaks – this is a consequence of so many people travelling around the country and mixing, however stringent the safety precautions. We would of course encourage more university provision of student counselling and support. But we also think that students should be allowed or even encouraged to return home at least until Christmas if they would feel happier doing so (see also recommendations 3 and 4 below). And we are clear that staff would feel more supported by the university if no-one (including hourly paid graduate teaching assistants) felt obliged to work on campus if they don’t feel safe doing so for any reason.
I look forward to meeting you soon when we can discuss these issues further in person.
University of Leeds UCU President
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From Independent SAGE report 28 September 2020:
“Modelling shows that transmission occurs in residential halls and through in-person teaching. Thus, Independent SAGE recommends that universities immediately implement these five key recommendations:
1. Transfer all teaching and learning online by default.
2. Make essential in-person teaching and learning (e.g., components of laboratory or practicebased courses) contingent on the regular testing of students and staff, with a ‘dashboard’ approach as adopted by US Colleges, and with stringent adherence to face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, and ventilation mitigations.
3. Offer students the choice whether to live on campus / in their university accommodation or at home elsewhere (e.g., with parents and caregivers) and review at the end of the calendar year (i.e., December), and avoid numerous journeys between home and university.
4. Ensure that students who choose to remain at university while learning online maintain the right to return home for the rest of the term at any point, with accommodation fees refunded, and with testing before doing so.
5. Ensure full and generous support to students both to self-isolate and to access online learning resources, including practical needs (e.g., food, laundry), learning (e.g., IT, connectivity), and social and emotional needs (e.g., buddy systems, regular wellbeing checks, online events).”