Universities in lockdown

Submitted by AWL on 3 November, 2020 - 1:55
Students locked down

As Solidarity goes to press on 3 November, Lockdown 2 is about to begin (5 November) with universities subject to ambiguous government guidance. On the one hand they are expected to stay “open” (not that they ever closed, but instead put in enormous effort to deliver teaching online). On the other they are told “to consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”.

Some Vice-Chancellors took less than 24 hours to consider and announce that they would be sticking with their status quo of continuing in-person teaching — even where it is not required for the subject or inferior to the options available online. Others have not yet said what will happen.

In practice many students who currently live in halls or student houses may take the opportunity to head to parents’ homes as a better option for a month-long lockdown. The government has said that from Thursday 5 November such moves will be banned and it will issue further guidance about Christmas.

Besides the Covid rules, hanging over students’ heads is the threat of being made to repay part of their student loan, which is higher for those who live away from parents or guardians. The government should immediately make clear that repayments will not be required from those who opt for online study during the pandemic.

Meanwhile many university staff are stuck in the invidious position of being forced to continue with in-person provision even as more students opt for online or are forced into it by self-isolation. Some UCU [University and College Union] branches have successfully pushed for the national position that all teaching that can go online should (in line, as we now know, with SAGE’s advice in September). Others still face intransigent managers, although there is evidently an element of guerrilla action, with some staff and indeed whole departments switching extra components online unofficially.

The anti-union laws mean branches are forced to tread carefully in encouraging such action, though they can advise members to request risk assessments and re-assessments as new information on Covid emerges. Several UCU branches have already initiated formal disputes, but ballot results will come too late to force a switch before Christmas.

Other campus unions, concerned about the impact on jobs of a full switch to online, have been reluctant to back UCU. UCU should make clear that it will defend all campus jobs — not just those of its own members, who on average earn significantly more than staff in Unite or Unison.

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