With the onset of a second wave, university staff speak out about their fears

An empty university lecture hall
Maryam Jameela

The restart of university teaching across UK campuses will see students and staff travelling for face-to-face learning that risks compromising public health.

Teaching unions and scientific groups have expressed concerns that going ahead with teaching on campuses will further compound disastrous government policy on coronavirus (Covid-19) which has already been criticised as inadequate and incompetent.

SAGE and UCU

A Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) paper published at the beginning of September argues that:

There is strong evidence that reducing in-person interaction is an effective way to limit transmission and so delivery of activities online, especially for larger groups is a key mitigation

As universities weigh up course types, the range of accommodation structures, and student intake, it remains a significant problem that staff are having to consider the risk of travelling to teach groups on campus. Students, meanwhile, are preparing to move to entirely new households in different parts of the country for the start of term. With the increased rates of infection, moving large numbers of students around the country will potentially have a disastrous impact on public health.

Indeed, the University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Dr Jo Grady cautioned that universities and the government appear to be “ill-prepared” for campus learning. Moreover, Grady advocated that universities adopt a “default” position of online learning for the coming semester.

Financial interests over lives

An anonymous lecturer at a Russell Group university pointed out to The Canary that when universities first closed at the start of the UK lockdown, they were “following the science” – but now:

Their evidence-based approach has been corrupted by their financial interests. They are endangering staff and students by reopening to ensure that they collect tuition fees and fees from student accommodation… The science is clear, gathering together, even in socially distanced ways, poses huge risks of infection. Indeed, we were told by managers at my university that infections are inevitable. But we are pressing on because universities have decided that their finances are more important than the lives and the health of their staff and students.

The SAGE paper cites research from Universities United Kingdom (UUK) that shows the majority of institutions are planning to combine online lectures with limited in-person contact. In allowing any teaching to happen face to face on campuses, especially where avoidable, universities are risking the lives of their staff and students. This reckless policy puts lecturers in the position of having to advocate for their own, their families’, and their students’ health at their own discretion.

Some lecturers may choose to teach face to face, which is their prerogative. Others who are uncomfortable doing so, however, are left with the latest scientific advice, but not their universities, on their side.

Masquerade of choice

Face-to-face teaching in universities mirrors UK government policy, which has rushed through various schemes that prioritise the economy over lives. Staff and students with pre-existing conditions, disabilities and caring responsibilities are left compromised by such policies.

Dr Hannah Robbins of the University of Nottingham told The Canary:

I think there needs to be clear contingencies for staff and students who need to isolate in advance that can be communicated to everyone. The culture of secrecy for the sake of “business as usual” is impractical… [and] leaves everyone on high alert all the time, creating its own welfare concerns.

The weight of individual responsibility in a global pandemic cannot be overstated – institutions making the choice to desert vulnerable communities is an act of violence. This act will leave professional services overwhelmed with both students and academic staff requiring extra support from an already underfunded system.

Online learning complications

There are challenges that universities will need to meet in order to successfully deliver online teaching. Digital studies lecturer at Cardiff University Dr Francesca Sobande told The Canary:

The shift to online teaching can be a challenging one for individuals and institutions to make, but I believe that embracing digital pedagogical approaches longer term could play a vital role in enabling people to pursue an education without feeling as though they are forced to be physically present in risky, unsafe, and inaccessible environments. Digital pedagogical work differs to simply “pivoting to online” and requires a lot of time, care, and commitment, but it can result in enriching educational experiences that expand understandings of what it means to learn and teach, together.

Teaching online is extra work for lecturers. And it requires an understanding of alternative teaching practice that can be delivered clearly to incoming students. Accessibility of education is not simply a matter of putting recorded lectures online – students require safe and quiet home environments, access to necessary technology, and a familiarity with online learning.

Training, support, and an effective institutional commitment to collective safety, both on and off campus, are also necessary.

There is a collective responsibility for the government and universities to put forward a policy of blanket online teaching. They also need to address why this is not possible for certain courses, alongside making alternative plans.

Learning and teaching experiences should not come at the cost of the lives of lecturers and students.

Featured image via Luke Jones/Flickr

We need your help ...

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.

Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.

We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.

Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?

The Canary Support us
  • Show Comments
    1. There is no ‘second wave’! The ‘new cases’ are merely an artefact of the increase in testing. Everyone now knows – or should know – that the tests are seriously unreliable. They DO NOT detect SarsCov2 – because it has not yet been isolated and positively identified. The PCR tests merely detect viral fragments, which include bits of previous coronavirus infections – to which the person has developed an immunity which is now being transferred to Covid.

      The only true indicator of a ‘second wave’ would be a significant increase in hospitalisations and deaths – which has not happened. What our corrupt political elites seem to be hoping for is to maintain the fear level until the new winter flu season kicks in, when they can then dishonestly claim that it is the ‘second wave’. It is also not beyond possibility that a new, more lethal strain of coronavirus could be deliberately introduced in order to re-impose the severe lockdown restrictions and make people readier to accept an unsafe vaccine.

      The “Great Reset” plans still have some way to go. What is absolutely certain is that there will be no return to ‘normal’ – unless the current administrations are forced to resign, sanity can be restored, and a genuine democracy can be installed by the sovereign people.

    2. “With the onset of a second wave…”.

      More nonsense from the Canary on this subject. There is no second wave. Do some proper research, instead of parroting government lies. I can only repeat what I posted earlier:

      Why has the Canary become the mouthpiece for ludicrous government propaganda, and yet another media outlet terrifying everyone with bogus statistics based on modelling that is the laughing stock of the academic world, and lending its support to policies that are killing thousands (cancer delayed treatment – estimated 18,000) and destroying the future prospects of millions? Julia Hartley-Brewer and TalkRadio, ffs, are more enlightened than this site on this subject, and they’re a bunch of Conservatives. Hasn’t anyone at the Canary been following the grown up scientists, not the government stooges? People like Dr Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford, and barely rivalled in her sphere by anyone on the planet? Or Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi, professor emeritus of medical microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, the most cited microbiologist in German medical history? Or Nobel laureate Michael Levitt, professor of structural biology at Stanford University?

      These people are finally being aired as more and more informed people begin to understand that they have been sold a pup. The Canary should stop selling it on the government’s behalf. Do some research, everyone else is.

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.