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:
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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.
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