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UCU launches petition demanding universities move online as campus Covid cases hit 20k

Online learning on a laptop

The University and College Union (@UCU) has today (Friday) launched a petition* demanding the UK government move learning online at universities immediately, as the total number of reported Covid cases on campus since the start of term rose to over 20,000. UCU launched its Covid dashboard last Friday (9 October) when universities were reporting around 10,000 cases.

UCU’s petition calls on the government to immediately implement the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) recommendations and move to online learning in universities, as well as provide additional funding to protect students and staff from the impacts of the Covid crisis.

This week it emerged that ministers ignored a series of measures recommended by SAGE in mid-September, which included moving all university and college teaching online unless in-person teaching was absolutely essential. UCU has been calling for university teaching to be moved online since August.

The union said deep-rooted flaws in how universities are funded had encouraged institutions to bring students back onto campus because of their reliance on tuition and accommodation fees. It said the government now needed to stand behind the sector with secure funding that allows health and safety to be the top priority.

Jo Grady 100x100UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘We have now seen over 20,000 cases of Covid at universities since the start of term. But even as much of the UK is moving into stricter measures to contain the pandemic, in-person activities are continuing on campus causing infections to rise. We repeatedly warned that the mass migration of students around the country would cause a public health disaster but our pleas fell on deaf ears.

‘The pandemic has exposed deep-rooted flaws in how universities are funded. The government’s failure to stand behind the sector in this time of crisis has meant institutions have been encouraged to prioritise student recruitment over health and safety, with staff and students now paying the price.

‘We are urging everyone to sign our petition so the government understands that it needs to move learning online now, and provide additional funding to support flexibility for students, stability for the sector and safety for all.’

UCU has also launched a video, ‘a preventable crisis’, which shows why universities must halt in-person teaching. 

*Petition text

We note the spiralling crisis in higher education, with avoidable Covid-19 outbreaks on campuses affecting thousands of students and staff across the UK.

We are deeply concerned that the government and institutions have ignored the calls of the University and College Union, National Union of Students, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and Independent SAGE for the majority of learning to move online.

We believe that the pandemic has exposed deep-rooted flaws in how higher education is funded. The pressure on institutions to attract tuition fee income, combined with the government’s failure to stand behind the sector financially during this crisis, has contributed to the decision to push ahead with unnecessary in-person provision which threatens the physical and mental health of students, staff and local communities. 

We need a better approach to funding which supports flexibility for students, security for staff, stability for the sector, and safety for all. 

We call on the UK government to:

  1. Immediately implement the SAGE recommendations and move to online learning where possible
  2. Ensure no financial detriment to students who wish to give up their accommodation place during the pandemic
  3. Provide a financial guarantee for universities against loss of income linked to the Covid-19 crisis
  4. Provide additional funding for mental health support for both staff and students
  5. End tuition fees and move to a stable, long-term, direct funding model for higher education


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