Jo Grady, general secretary, UCU

Staff and student must wear masks and employers must modify building to make them Covid secure, @UCU says  

The University and College Union (UCU) has today (23 Jul) issued a stark warning to governments across the UK that the chaos experienced by students in university and colleges last year is set to be repeated, unless vaccines are made available to students and strict health and safety measures put in place on campus.

Governments across the UK and employers are urged to put in place strict health and safety measures to prevent outbreaks, with a special warning reserved for UK government over ‘reckless’ removal of restrictions

The union says the rolling back of Covid restrictions by governments as cases surge could be a ‘recipe for disaster’ for post-16 education, with universities particularly vulnerable as over one million of students travel back to live and study in towns and cities away from home.

In letters to the governments of the UK, Scotland, and the Northern Ireland Executive [see below] UCU says that there must be a focus on delivering a consistent, high-quality education, but that doing so relies on ensuring students and staff are protected from infection, so that outbreaks don’t occur and fewer students and staff are forced to self-isolate.

During the last peak of the pandemic in December 2020, at least 45 universities in the UK were reporting outbreaks of Covid-19, with almost 4,000 students isolating.

UCU’s post-16 Education Recovery Principles

UCU’s approach to framing national and local demands regarding Coronavirus and Covid are based on 5 core principles:

  1. There should be a clear focus on consistent high-quality education provision for all in post-16 education, avoiding the disruption experienced last year
  2. There should be a clear focus on ensuring the health & safety of all staff in the post-16 sector
  3. The physical and mental health of all students in post-16 education is of vital importance
  4. Education settings should not become centres of community Covid transmission
  5. Adequate funding must be made available

In its ‘post-16 Education Recovery Principles’, published today and delivered to each government, UCU calls for:

  • A consistent, high-quality and appropriately funded recovery with resources made available so that plans can be made to deliver successful remote, blended and in-person learning;
  • Governments to work with education providers and local and regional health service providers to offer full vaccinations to university students and those in adult further education before September, and then to those aged 16 and over when approved by JCVI;
  • Education providers to provide and mandate the wearing of high-quality face masks for both staff and students whilst on-site;
  • Government to develop guidance with education providers on measures to take in the event of rising infections;
  • Under legal obligations, education providers to produce robust health and safety risk assessments ahead of the new academic year;
  • Government and education providers must ensure free and easy access to PCR tests for staff and students;
  • Education providers must identify modifications required to improve ventilation and allow for effective social distancing. Any new capital funding required should be made available by each government;
  • Education providers must take urgent steps to improve mental health provision for students;

Special warning was reserved for the UK government and Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson.

In its letter, UCU says last year ministers ‘green-lit the mass movement of students across the country’, failing to realise the effect this would have on infections. A lack of leadership from government and indecision over a return to campus for in-person teaching led to outbreaks, with students being forced to self-isolate in unfamiliar surroundings.

England is home to the vast majority of universities in the UK and now the UCU says the removal of public health and workplace guidance means that the actions of the government of Westminster are the biggest threat to students, staff and public safety.

Government scientific advisers Sage warned the UK government last year, ahead of the outbreaks, that rapidly rising infections at universities were ‘very likely …given their size and the degree of close contact typical through shared living arrangements and while socialising and during lectures and practicals.’

The warning comes from UCU after the UK hit its highest number of Covid-related fatalities since March with Sage modelling suggesting that hospitalisations could hit between 1,000 – 2,000 per day at the end of August, just as university students return to campus.

In Wales, a number of the measures UCU is requesting are already in place, with the Welsh government providing additional funding to address catch up as well as recognising the legal duties of employers in relation to risk assessments and the need to put mitigations in place. The government is currently drafting further guidance for the autumn term.

In Scotland, UCU has been part of the government’s Covid Recovery Group and is able to comment on Covid guidance as it is produced. In letters to the Scottish government and Northern Ireland Executive, UCU welcomes the levels of engagement and the more cautious approach to reopening being taken.

Jo Grady 100x100UCU general secretary Jo Grady, said:

‘Students and staff endured totally avoidable chaos in the last academic year, and rightly want to put that behind them, but at present there is a real danger that the disruption could return as cases surge and restrictions are eased across the UK.

‘To protect students’ education it is vital that governments and providers work with trade unions to ensure vital health and safety measures are in place on campus, including the provision and mandated wearing of masks. Before over a million students travel across the country to their places of study, governments must also make university students a priority group for vaccination, ensuring they are fully vaccinated before September. Preventing outbreaks is the first step in delivering a consistent, high-quality education for everyone.

‘Our biggest concern remains in England, however, where the government has taken a reckless approach to the removal of restrictions and guidance for educations providers. Last year, this complacency led to huge outbreaks, caused chaos for students and burnout for staff, who worked incredibly hard to maintain standards. With the vast majority of universities in England, ministers in Westminster are concocting a recipe for disaster that will threaten public safety.

‘This is not a time for the Secretary of State to go on holiday and he must pay attention to scientific advisers, trade unions, staff and students and ensure the education and health of all in the post-16 sector is made a priority. A return to the level of disruption experienced last year would be unforgivable.’


Westminster government could see the same disruption return 

Gavin Williamson FENews 750x570

Letter to Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson:

Dear Secretary of State,

In just over two months, around 1.5 million students and over one hundred thousand staff in post-16 education will be back on campuses in England for work and study. It should be a time when minds are focused on overcoming the disruption suffered last year – however, we are deeply concerned that the actions of the Westminster government could see the same disruption return, putting the health of students and staff at risk and throwing the new academic year into chaos.

Last year, ministers green-lit the mass movement of students across the country and failed to recognise the effect this would have on infections, on those working and studying in the sector, and on the wider communities of which they become a part. Owing to a lack of leadership from government, indecision over a return to campus and in-person teaching, and a refusal to listen to warnings from UCU and the government’s own scientific advisors, outbreaks were reported across the entire sector.

In December last year, at least 45 universities in the UK reported covid-19 outbreaks with almost 4,000 students self-isolating at one time. Thousands of students were forced to self-isolate in unfamiliar accommodation where many needlessly contracted the virus. Similar instances of outbreaks were reported in colleges and in adult education settings, such as prisons.

As the Westminster government removes all restrictions and the associated public health guidance, there is a real danger that unless we learn key lessons from last year, our education settings become incubators for Covid-19 all over again, doing great harm to the provision of post-16 education.

With the UK hitting the highest number of Covid fatalities since March, Independent SAGE warning 1,000 – 2,000 hospitalisations a day is the ‘central scenario’, and 1,200 scientists across the world urging the government not to remove restrictions, it is clear that the recovery of post-16 education in England is at a critical juncture. As is well documented, the Delta variant is the most highly transmissible strain of the disease. If appropriate health and safety measures are not in place, we could witness disruption in post-16 education worse than during earlier waves.

The government and employers have a duty to protect the health of students and staff, and to deliver a consistent, high-quality education. And so UCU is writing to urge you in your role as Secretary of State for Education, to commit to following UCU’s post16 Education Recovery Principles ahead of the new academic year in England, which at the end of this letter you can read in full:

  1. There should be a clear focus on consistent high-quality education provision for all in post-16 education, avoiding the disruption experienced last year
  2. There should be a clear focus on ensuring the health & safety of all staff in the post-16 sector
  3. The physical and mental health of all students in post-16 education is of vital importance
  4. Education settings should not become centres of community Covid transmission
  5. Adequate funding must be made available

Delivering a consistent, high-quality education during a pandemic is reliant on first keeping students and staff safe from infection. We are therefore urging you to support UCU’s calls for all university students to be offered the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before the start of the academic year, as a priority group. We note that vaccines have been approved for those up to three months from their 18th birthday, however the challenge is ensuring all students are able to receive their vaccinations before September. The government and employers should work together alongside local and regional NHS providers to make this a reality. And in further education we call for all students 16 and over to also be offered the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, as soon as approved by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Rather than remove public health and workplace guidance, the government must commit to developing comprehensive, timely, and appropriate guidance for post16 education providers ahead of the start of the academic year, including that to be used in the event of rising infections. This will ensure health and safety measures are consistent across post-16 education settings in England and help prevent a repeat of last year, during which interventions by government were too late, and insufficient when they were made.

Employers should provide and mandate the wearing of face masks whilst on-site, and under their legal obligations must produce robust health and safety risk assessments in consultation with trade union representatives. Capital funding should be used to improve ventilation where necessary and to make other modifications that allow for effective social distancing. Government should communicate to providers that where additional funding is required to make premises safe, that this will be made available.

Government and employers must ensure there is easy access to free PCR testing onsite and in halls of residence, and that a system of test, track and trace is in effective working order. Mitigation measures in the case of rising infections amongst staff and students must also be agreed and communicated clearly, along with regular reporting of case numbers on campus.

Employers must also take urgent steps to improve the level of mental health provision, which last year failed students, leaving many in crisis and with lecturers and other academic-related staff being required to step in and provide support. This cannot be allowed to happen again.

Finally, we are asking that as Secretary of State you make a clear commitment that the necessary funding will be made available to education providers for the coming academic year, to support the delivery of an effective Covid recovery. For employers, we are urging that additional resources and staffing are made available, and that casualised staff are brought onto permanent contracts to support delivery.

Education will be vital to leading the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, however this recovery could be held back by rising infections across the post-16 education sector. It is vital, and a matter of urgency, that the government and employers agree to meet the UCU’s post-16 Education Recovery Principles, which overleaf you can read in full.

Time really is of the essence to prevent post-16 education being plunged into chaos all over again.

Yours sincerely

Dr Jo Grady General Secretary


UCU’s post-16 Education Recovery Principles

UCU’s approach to framing national and local demands regarding Coronavirus and Covid are based on 5 core principles.

  1. There should be a clear focus on consistent high-quality education provision for all in post-16 education, avoiding the disruption experienced last year
  2. There should be a clear focus on ensuring the health & safety of all staff in the post-16 sector
  3. The physical and mental health of all students in post-16 education is of vital importance
  4. Education settings should not become centres of community Covid transmission
  5. Adequate funding must be made available

To ensure these principles are followed, UCU are making demands nationally and locally:

1. There should be a clear focus on consistent high-quality education provision for all in post-16 education

Governments

  • Must ensure disruption resulting from Covid outbreaks is avoided
  • Must ensure a consistent, high-quality appropriately funded recovery with resources made available so that plans can be made to deliver successful remote, blended and in-person learning;
  • Must ensure clarity over Covid-related changes to external assessment and accountability

Employers

  • Must reach agreement with trade unions over up-to-date risk assessments, including those covering any returns to in-person teaching
  • Must ensure additional resources and staffing are identified, bringing casualised staff onto permanent contracts to support delivery
  • Must provide staff and students with the right tools for successful remote, blended, and in-person learning
  • Must give staff the necessary resources (including time and access to professional development) to develop the range of provision required to provide high-quality education
  • Must commit to investing in staff in the short, medium, and long term to deliver an effective recovery

2. There should be a clear focus on the health & safety of all staff in the post-16 sector

Governments

  • Must provide comprehensive, timely, and appropriate guidance for post-16 education providers, including that to be used in the event of rising infection rates and staff and/or student self-isolation
  • Must ensure a working system of test, track, and trace is in place
  • Must ensure more effective regulation and checks on workplace safety measures

Employers

  • Must meet legal obligations and ensure workplaces are safe environments
  • Must consult recognised unions on all health and safety measures and ensure risk assessments are robust and monitored rigorously
  • Must agree with recognised trade unions appropriate mitigations to control and minimise Covid transmission, including the provision and wearing of high-quality face masks, good ventilation, hygiene protocols, and social distancing
  • Must provide recognised trade unions with regular updates on case numbers amongst staff and students
  • Must agree measures with recognised trade unions to prevent excessive workloads and workplace stress
  • Must meet their obligations under the Equality Act and take steps to protect those at risk, such as those who are clinically vulnerable and other at-risk categories.

3. The physical and mental health of students in post-16 education is of vital importance

Governments

  • Must ensure students aged 18 years or older have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated prior to the start of the next academic year, with the same provision for younger age groups when available

Employers

  • Must work with the relevant government and local and regional NHS providers to ensure vaccines can be delivered to students in all over 18s education provision
  • Must ensure those self-isolating, or caring for those self-isolating, are fully paid and not discriminated against
  • Must ensure there is no discrimination against those clinically vulnerable, vulnerable, or those suffering from Long Covid
  • Must ensure the mental health of students is protected, and appropriate measures put in place for those in crisis

4. Education settings should not become centres of community Covid transmission

Governments

  • Must ensure an effective system of Test, Track, and Trace is in place
  • Must ensure full sick pay and support is available for those self-isolating in all sectors
  • Ensure that public health bodies and health & safety authorities maintain effective communications with education sector employers to ensure that those employers are able to fulfil their requirements under health and safety legislation and public health requirements

Employers

  • Must ensure free PCR testing is available for all staff and students
  • Must ensure effective monitoring systems are in place to identify workplace infections and to alert staff and students to any need to self-isolate
  • Must maintain regular and effective communications with public health bodies and health and safety authorities, sharing the outcomes of such communications with recognised trade unions
  • Provision and mandated wearing of high-quality masks on site and making the necessary modifications that improve ventilation and allow for effective social distancing

5. Adequate funding must be made available

Governments

  • Must ensure an appropriate settlement is forthcoming for post-16 education in the next Spending Review
  • Must ensure adequate funding is in place to ensure the health & safety of staff and students in all educational settings
  • Employers
  • Must ensure funding is focused on meeting these principles by delivering adequate staffing and fair agreements on pay and workload
  • Must ensure that capital funding is made available where necessary to improve areas such as IT infrastructure and building ventilation.

Potential Reopening of Further and Higher Education in Northern Ireland

Paul Givan and Michelle ONeill FE News

Letter to Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister:

Dear Paul Givan MLA and Michelle O’Neill MLA, First Minister and deputy First Minister,

Within two months thousands of students and staff in post-16 education may be back on campuses for work and study. In the meantime minds should be focused on ensuring there is no repeat of the disruption suffered last year. UCU are concerned that the actions of the Westminster government, if replicated by the Assembly Executive, could see the same disruption return, putting the health of students and staff at risk and throwing the new academic year into chaos.

Although the situation locally over the last 16 months was better handled in comparison to some other jurisdictions, UCU is firmly of the view that we need to learn from experiences over that period and that any decisions in respect of a return to campus and face to face teaching are taken in line with the most up to date scientific and medical advice, supported by an up to date agreed Risk Assessment. We cannot face a repeat of instances last year where students and staff had to selfisolate, following outbreaks, as a result of an insistence by some institutions that face to face teaching must occur, even when this decision was contrary to public health advice and guidance at the time.

As we witness the Westminster government prematurely removing all restrictions in England there is a real danger that unless the Assembly Executive learns key lessons from last year, our local education establishments could become incubators for Covid-19 all over again, wreaking havoc on the provision of post-16 education. It is worth highlighting that in Britain they have hit the highest number of fatalities since March, Independent SAGE warning that 1,000 - 2,000 hospitalisations is the ‘central scenario’, and 1,200 scientists across the world warning the UK government that it is making a mistake in removing restrictions, it is clear that the recovery of post-16 education is at a critical juncture. As is well documented, the Delta variant is the most highly transmissible strain of the disease to date. If appropriate health and safety measures are not in place, we could witness disruption worse than during earlier waves.

Government and employers have a duty to protect the health of students and staff, and to deliver a consistent high-quality post-16 education. Consequently UCU is writing to urge you, in your joint roles as First and deputy First Ministers, to commit to the following principles for the provision of post-16 education ahead of the new academic year:

  1. There should be a clear focus on consistent high-quality education provision for all in post-16 education, avoiding the disruption experienced last year
  2. There should be a clear focus on ensuring the health & safety of all staff in the post-16 sector
  3. The physical and mental health of all students in post-16 education is of vital importance
  4. Education settings should not become centres of community Covid transmission
  5. Adequate funding must be made available

Delivering a consistent, high-quality education during a pandemic is reliant on first keeping students and staff safe from infection. We are therefore urging you to support UCU’s calls for all university students to be encouraged to take up the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before the start of the academic year, as a priority group. We note that vaccines have been approved for those up to three months from their 18th birthday, however the challenge is ensuring all students can receive their vaccinations before September. The government and employers should work together alongside local and regional NHS providers to make this a reality. And in further education we call for all students 16 and over to be offered the opportunity to be fully vaccinated as soon as approved by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

The Executive must also commit to developing comprehensive, timely, and appropriate guidance for post-16 education providers ahead of the start of the academic year, including guidance to be used in the event of rising infections. This will ensure health and safety measures are consistent across all post-16 education settings here. This guidance should be developed in consultation with UCU and other recognised Trade Unions in the Sector.

Employers should continue to mandate the wearing of face masks whilst on-site. In line with their legal obligations institutions must produce robust health and safety risk assessments in consultation with trade union representatives. Capital funding should also be used to improve ventilation where necessary and to make other modifications that facilitate effective social distancing. The Assembly Executive should communicate to all education providers that where additional funding is required to make premises safe, this will be made available, without unnecessary delays.

Government and employers must ensure there is easy access to free PCR testing on-site and in halls of residence, and that a system of test, track and trace is in effective working order. Mitigation measures in the case of rising infections amongst staff and students must also be agreed and communicated clearly, along with daily records of cases.

Employers must also take urgent steps to improve the level of supportive mental health provision, which last year failed students in some areas, leaving many in crisis and with lecturers and other academic-related staff being required to step in and provide support. This cannot be allowed to happen again.

Finally, UCU requests that as First and deputy First Minister you jointly make a clear commitment that the necessary funding will be made available to education providers for the coming academic year, to support the delivery of an effective Covid-19 recovery curriculum. For employers, we are urging that additional resources and staffing are made available, and that casualised staff are brought onto permanent contracts to support delivery.

Education will be vital to leading the recovery from the pandemic, however this recovery could be held back by rising infections across the post-16 education sector. It is vital, and a matter of urgency, that government and employers agree to meet the UCU’s post-16 Education Recovery Principles, which are outlined in the attached document.

Time really is of the essence in ensuring that, when it is appropriate to do so, our post-16 education system bounces back safely after last year. UCU would welcome a joint commitment from you that the Executive is committed to the 5 core principles outlined in this correspondence.

As a matter of courtesy, a copy of this letter has also been issued to the Minister for the Economy.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary and Katharine Clarke, N Ireland Official, UCU


Collaborative approach followed by the Scottish government is welcome 

Jamie Hepburn FE News

Letter to Mr Jamie Hepburn MSP, Scotland’s Minister for Higher Education & Further Education, Youth Training & Employment:

Dear Minister,

In a matter of weeks students and staff in Scottish universities and across the UK will be back on campuses for work and study. It should be a time when minds are focused on overcoming the disruption suffered last year. However, we as a union remain concerned that that we will see disruption return in some areas of the UK, putting the health of students and staff at risk and throwing the new academic year into chaos.

The more collaborative approach followed by the Scottish government in comparison to the UK government is welcome. UCU greatly values our membership of the Covid Recovery Group, and the opportunity to contribute to and comment on draft Covid guidance as it is developed.

In addition, we welcome the more cautious approach to lifting restrictions followed by the Scottish government than that of the Westminster government in removing all restrictions and associated public health guidance. Nevertheless you will be aware from our submissions prior to the publication of the ‘beyond level 0’ guidance that we remain of the view that there is scope for more caution, and that there is a real danger that unless we learn key lessons from last year, our education settings become incubators for Covid-19 all over again. As is well documented, the Delta variant is the most highly transmissible strain of the disease. If appropriate health and safety measures are not in place, we could witness disruption worse than during earlier waves.

As you know, UCU in Scotland has focused on a safety first approach, emphasising the importance of enhanced ventilation, risk assessments, and the need for caution on returning to campuses while many young people are not yet double vaccinated. These priorities are broadly shared across the campus trade unions and in keeping with a set of principles UCU at a UK level has identified and which are set out below and again, in greater detail, at the end of this letter.

UCU post 16 education recovery principles:

  1. There should be a clear focus on consistent high-quality education provision for all in post-16 education, avoiding the disruption experienced last year
  2. There should be a clear focus on ensuring the health & safety of all staff in the post-16 sector
  3. The physical and mental health of all students in post-16 education is of vital importance
  4. Education settings should not become centres of community Covid transmission
  5. Adequate funding must be made available

Delivering a consistent, high-quality education during a pandemic is reliant on first keeping students and staff safe from infection. We are therefore urging you to support UCU’s calls for all university students to be fully vaccinated before the start of the academic year, as a priority group. We note that vaccines have been approved for those up to three months from their 18th birthday, however the challenge is ensuring all students receive their vaccinations before September. Governments and employers should work together alongside local and regional NHS providers to make this a reality. And we call for all students under the age of 18 to be fully vaccinated as soon as approved by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

While the newly published ‘beyond level 0’ guidance refers to the ‘appropriate’ wearing of face coverings, UCU believe that the guidance should be more prescriptive and require the ongoing wearing of face masks while on-site. Capital funding should be used to improve ventilation where necessary and to make other modifications that allow for effective social distancing. Government should communicate to providers that where additional funding is required to make premises safe, that this will be made available.

Government and employers must ensure there is easy access to free PCR testing on-site and in halls of residence, and that a system of test, track and trace is in effective working order. Mitigation measures in the case of rising infections amongst staff and students must also be agreed and communicated clearly, along with daily records of cases.

We recognise that employers have taken positive steps around mental health provision and are engaging with unions on the issue. However, we need to do more and to increase the provision of support to students and staff in the sector urgently before the start of the new academic year.

Finally, we are asking that as Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training you make a clear commitment that the necessary funding will be made available to education providers for the coming academic year, to support the delivery of an effective Covid-19 recovery. For employers, we are urging that additional resources and staffing are made available, and that casualised staff are brought onto permanent contracts to support delivery.

Education will be vital to leading Scotland and the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, however this recovery could be held back by rising infections across the post-16 education sector. It is vital, and a matter of urgency, that the governments and employers agree to meet the UCU’s post-16 Education Recovery Principles, which overleaf you can read in full.

Time really is of the essence in ensuring that our post-16 education system bounces back safely after last year.

Yours sincerely,

Jo Grady, General Secretary, UCU and Mary Senior, Scotland Official, UCU

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