UMUCU is writing to express our urgent concerns and opposition to university management’s continued insistence on face-to-face working for the new academic year, as well as our sincere reservations about the university’s level of institutional preparedness for face-to-face working in the context of nationally and (especially) locally spiralling rates of Covid infections. That the university’s ‘Tier’ alert level has changed without clear rationale or any adjustment to working practice is both confusing and troubling. The reasoning from management that such change is possible without adjustment because of the previous level of preparedness is not sufficient to reassure workers.
The unity, commitment, and professionalism that teaching and support staff have demonstrated throughout the planning and reopening process for this semester has been astounding. Yet these colleagues – many of whom are now front-line workers – have been left to manage impossible demands. Teaching staff are being sent into classrooms in conditions that many feel do not suit the level of threat in our region; in some areas, they lack adequately updated risk assessments, promised protective equipment, and necessary safety training. Testing and tracing across the UK is currently unfit for purpose, adding to both risk and anxiety among staff.
In many cases, face-to-face teaching is still being enforced even when online learning rather than socially-distanced face-to-face would be preferable on educational grounds. Where it has been provided, guidance on how to deliver an equitable teaching experience for self-isolating students (a cohort that changes on a daily basis) is insufficient or inoperable.
In these conditions, we call for an immediate suspension of all but essential face-to-face work, bringing the university in line with government guidance for the Tier 2 alert level, which states that “in the majority of cases, [face-to-face teaching] will be for those courses where it is most beneficial (for example, clinical or practical learning and research).”
We also urge the university to reconsider its ‘tier’ level in light of disastrous local spikes in infection numbers and rates. This face-to-face suspension should be reviewed if and when the infection rate in Greater Manchester returns to those levels at which the university’s corporate risk assessment and reopening plans were designed (i.e. an infection rate under 50 per 100 000).
Until this suspension is enacted, and if limited essential face-to-face teaching continues, we request that no staff should face a penalty or disciplinary action for not electing to engage in face-to-face teaching. Local arrangements for allocating face-to-face teaching have the potential for serious inequality, with already disadvantaged staff likely to suffer undue burden. UMUCU is aware that exemptions for vulnerable individuals, individuals with vulnerable family members, and individuals with other circumstances that put them at risk, are being issued unevenly across the university. In these conditions, staff should face no disciplinary action as a result of being unable to engage in face-to-face teaching.
We further call on the University to enhance and invigorate its support plans and provisions for the physical health and mental well-being of the students in its care. Current plans place considerable financial onus on students and access is uneven. A lack of clarity around teaching provisioning makes it difficult for students to make informed decisions about their residence, employment, and courses of study. More clarity and confidence will empower students to make these decisions and mitigate any financial detriment. The university must be an advocate for students with government bodies in the event of collective demands for compensation.
The University of Manchester is one of the only universities in the UK to have placed social responsibility on par with teaching and research as one of its core institutional priorities. We believe that continuing an arbitrary amount of face-to-face work, especially where there is little (if any) distinct pedagogical benefit, in the context of a public health emergency, fails to give due priority to our responsibilities as an employer and as a member of the Manchester community.
We ask that the University comply with its own terms and ambitions for safe returns to work and to government guidance by reducing face-to-face teaching to the fullest extent possible.