Urgent concerns about reopening and face-to-face teaching

The University of Manchester Senior Leadership Team persists in demanding that its staff deliver an “on-campus experience” in the form of a minimum of two-hours of face-to-face teaching per student, per week. This is despite:

  • distressing reports of significant outbreaks of Covid-19 among our undergraduate population
  • a run of consecutive days of record-breaking case numbers (and increasing infection rates) in Manchester
  • a national policy prioritizing working at home
  • weeks of warnings from both UCU national and from ongoing consultations with our local branch about the inevitable results of re-opening campuses for face-to-face teaching

 

Branch members, most of whom have been working ceaselessly over the summer,  have raised persistent concerns, confusion, and anger over this plan. In petitions, open letters, at School town halls, in Senate, in department and program meetings — in every forum that allows for input from those doing the planning and provisioning of teaching this year, our senior leadership and senior management have consistently been made aware of the problems and dangers of this on-campus commitment. Listening to staff could have averted some of the disastrous conditions we are currently witnessing.

 

Yesterday, leadership responded to these urgent concerns by raising the alert ‘Tier’ level of the University of Manchester from 1 to 2. The decision to change these levels lies entirely with the university. Several in the northwest (and beyond) moved to Level 2 some days ago. What these tiers mean also leaves considerable room for university discretion. Our leadership seemingly holds that changing tiers effectively changes nothing about our current practiceswhich purportedly already “enable us to continue to deliver our existing teaching plans.” We have no information about how, when, or why a decision to move to Tier 3 or 4 would be made.

 

The University of Manchester UCU has already called on university management to move all but absolutely essential practical teaching online. Today we are making clear our understanding of what university operations at Tier 2 should entail and what changes the senior leadership team should immediately undertake:

  • All teaching and learning should take place online, except where professional and practical requirements do not allow; any remaining face-to-face teaching must take place in safe and practicable conditions. This is in line with government guidance, which specifies face-to-face teaching only for areas where it is “most beneficial (for example, clinical or practical learning)”;
  • Where essential face-to-face teaching continues, staff who are vulnerable or have vulnerable household members should be exempted from this requirement;
  • University management must provide UCU and the broader community with accurate and updated numbers of reported cases of Covid-19 and students undergoing necessary self-isolation. Reporting mechanisms must be continuously monitored and additional information about ongoing infections collected if necessary;
  • University management must publicize and implement a robust plan for supporting students in self-isolation – financially, logistically, and mentally – and for supporting Residential Life staff who are now front-line workers.

 

Consultation to date with UMUCU – which has been undertaken at our demand – has resulted in tangible progress in protecting  the health and safety of our members. Yet there are real concerns that existing safety measures are not sufficient to the challenge of the current circumstances. Particular issues include:

  • Risk assessments remain generic, not specified by School/building/activity;
  • Most recent risk assessments have not been consulted on meaningfully with UCU Health and Safety representatives;
  • Promised protective measures, such as washable face masks and health and safety inductions for staff, are not yet available;
  • The university does not have a test-and-trace system that is currently reliable.

 

Like other universities in the northwest, the executive committee of UMUCU is investigating conditions under which the failures of university management to adequately respond to union requests could justify moving to a dispute over the issue of face-to-face teaching and community endangerment.

 

We will be in touch shortly for an Emergency General Meeting on this matter. An email about measures that you can take to protect yourself in the classroom, should face-to-face teaching be unavoidable in the meantime, will follow.

 

Please, continue to write to your line managers, HR reps, Faculty committee members, and Senate representatives to express your concerns and priorities on these matters; book a place in next week’s Open Meeting with SLT and speak up. Let ucu@manchester.ac.uk know who you’re talking to, so that the Exec can keep a log of these interactions. We must use all channels of communication to ensure that management can no longer claim ignorance of the consequences of their decisions.

 

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