Leeds University UCU has today written to the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Alan Langlands, in relation to the University of Leeds’ response to COVID-19 and we will be meeting with him tomorrow, along with representatives from Unison and Unite.
We have been increasingly dismayed and distressed by the nature of the University’s response, and know, from the many communications we have received from members, that both staff and students are as well. We are calling for the University to close in order to give us the opportunity to consider what needs to be in place for staff and students to work and live safely. A move to online teaching and assessment needs time to effect. Staff and students have different vulnerabilities, contexts and life situations which we need time to reflect on and work through. As things stand, staff particularly affected, both because they are self-isolating and because they and those they care for have vulnerabilities to the virus, are anxious to the point of being simply unable to maintain ‘business as usual.’
The announcement made on Saturday evening concerning a very limited restriction on some teaching has particularly concerned us. Such a last minute announcement, contradicting previous advice, has caused significant levels of stress, and requires staff, if they are to comply with it, to work over the weekend to take their classes online. On the measures themselves, it is unclear to us what the rationale is of using size of class as an indicator of what should close, without any consideration of the size of room or the nature of interaction within the class: it is for example, impossible to maintain ‘appropriate social distancing’ amongst a class of 30 in a room with a capacity of 30. Focus on class size pays no attention to individual risk factors of members of staff, who are in significantly different positions. And it is not clear that consideration has been given to the safety of staff outside the context of face to face teaching. The announcement creates an impression that the university is taking a haphazard approach that is driven by factors other than the health and safety of staff and students, which ought to be the primary consideration at this time.
We need to emphasise that the University, as an employer, has a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of its staff, and to consult with trades unions whilst doing so. Staff are not merely channels through which student experience is protected: they are individuals with rights, vulnerabilities and lives outside of work. We are confident that our students understand this point, and would be horrified to hear of staff being asked to work in unsafe ways.
There are many issues we need to discuss with the University as employer, which is one of the reasons why we think a pause on all normal activity is the only way forward. We do, however, want to be clear to staff that we are seeking immediate reassurance and guarantees on the following points, amongst others:
- That hourly paid staff will be paid for the hours they are expecting to be paid under all circumstances, and not be forced to rely on Statutory Sick Pay, and that they be properly paid for all extra work they undertake as a result of the pandemic;
- That the equality implications for both staff and students of moving teaching online, or working from home more generally, with particular reference to the situation of disabled staff and students, be considered and acted on as a matter of urgency;
- That the position of academic related, support and technical staff be particularly considered. University communications have focused solely on teaching activity, ignoring the position of these staff. These categories of staff are more likely to share offices than academic staff and, because of the nature of their work, are usually less able to work from home as a matter of course. We are concerned about the policy of keeping libraries, student services and other services open as usual without consideration of the health and safety risks to staff working there. We are concerned about staff such as those in Educational Engagement who spend much time off campus visiting schools and colleges and working with large groups of visitors. We note that applicant Visit Days are still apparently running as normal and are concerned about staff involved in those days as well as the impact of large numbers of people in relatively small spaces. We understand that some functions, such as supporting students who cannot go home, may well need to continue on campus and there needs to be urgent consideration as to how this can be done safely;
- That the published policy is revised to make provision for those who care for or live with people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Such people should be treated in the same way as staff who themselves are particularly vulnerable;
- That the published policy is revised to provide that, in the event of school closures, paid leave for childcare for as long as is required is provided.
- That staff should be given the time to learn the processes required for working at home, including teaching online, without requiring excessive hours of work;
- That steps be taken to avoid unhealthy levels of overwork by ceasing all non-essential activities to allow staff to concentrate on what is to be prioritized;
- That checks and assessments are carried out to ensure that staff are able to work from home safely, with particular reference to equality duties towards disabled staff.
Our members will be returning to work on Monday after four weeks of strike action, during which it has become clear that the higher education sector is at breaking point and staff goodwill is lower than ever. These are not circumstances in which universities should be taking staff for granted and failing to respect their right to a safe and healthy workplace. We have thus also asked that salary deductions should not be made, in order not to add further financial stress in what are already exceptionally difficult times for individuals, families and the global community.
Higher education, like many sectors in this country, has been stretched to its limits through poor leadership which prioritizes competitive advantage at the expense of individual health and well-being, and community solidarity. We hope that, in their inevitable calls for pulling together through these difficult times, University management recognises their obligations to all members of the University community, and to our civic, national and international interconnectedness. We call upon University management to do the right thing, prioritise health and safety and help us all look after each other and the people we love.