If gatherings of more than six will be banned in England – why does this not apply to universities and colleges? Marshajane Thompson


“If Labour now came out and backed the UCU’s call in full we could force this Government into another U turn and protect staff, students and the wider society in this public health crisis.”

Marshajane Thompson, UCU

Labour should now join the UCU and Independent SAGE in calling for online learning to be the default position in universities and colleges writes Marshajane Thompson.

Labour are right to push the Government on today’s news that test and trace is on the verge of collapse – but they should also now follow this by joining UCU and scientific advisors in pushing for universities and colleges to stop in person learning and move to online learning wherever possible.

It is clear that the Government haven’t done enough to ensure that the reopening of universities is safe for student’s staff and the wider community – with the Government’s own SAGE advisors warning this week that there is a “High chance of universities seeing significant outbreak”.

Without a test and trace system in place universities and colleges will be unable to deal with any outbreaks. UCU have been highlighting the risks of moving to full in person learning for months now and as early as march set out 5 tests that would need to be met before a full return to in person learning. None of those tests have yet been met.

The Government announced today that gatherings of more than six will be banned in England – so why does this not apply to workplaces, universities and colleges?

This week we have also seen Matt Hancock and this Government attempt to blame students and the wider population for being more relaxed, yet this is a clear outcome of the Government advice. Ministers need to provide support for universities through the public health infrastructure – not preemptively blame the behavior of students for Government failings.

Students have been told by this Government to move into halls of residence, live, socialise and work together – they have been assured by universities that they will be able to embrace the full university experience and that it would be “business as usual.” This is clearly impossible – and we have now seen that uuniversities are unable to meet the promises they made to students.

We cannot let Hancock shift the blame on to students, with all this data driven evidence our Government are still encouraging more in person activities on campus than is absolutely necessary.  The public isn’t to blame for becoming “too relaxed” and students aren’t to blame.

This failing Tory Government will bears the responsibility of a second wave of this public health crisis.

Two weeks ago UCU warned that Universities risk being the care homes of the second wave and we are now seeing that pan out. It’s not just universities, some colleges are putting the onus on individual teachers and classrooms to maintain health and safety requirements. With school outbreaks in the hundreds leading to localised shut down of schools and bubbles, universities and colleges run a greater risk of spreading the virus in a much wider pool across communities.

Yet even in areas with local ‘lockdowns,’ students are still being encouraged to go into college, when they could learn online.

Of course, this all then feeds into an absolute crisis nationally with a lack of test and trace, the furlough scheme being closed and the lack of decent sick pay meaning some people just cannot afford to self-isolate.

In the US we have seen campuses shut down and students sent back home after hundreds of students came down with the virus – we need to follow the scientific data and move to full online learning now – the disruption that it would cause immediately is nothing compared to the potential disasters of waiting until we hit crisis point.

The Government’s own SAGE advisors have also now highlighted concerns about what happens when term ends – students carrying Covid-19 back home for Christmas infecting their extended families stating. This risk could also be reduced by a move to online learning where possible.

UCU have worked closely with the NUS and Independent SAGE highlighting all of these concerns, yet despite the rise in confirmed Covid-19 cases the Government are still resisting our call.

The Government seem set to attempt to ignore it’s own SAGE advisors and leave universities and colleges ill prepared to cope with any outbreak on campuses.

The health of UCU members, all university staff, students and the wider community is too important to not continue to put pressure on this Government to change course – it’s great to see Kate Green (Shadow Education Secretary), Emma Hardy (Shadow Minister for Further Education and Universities,) plus individual MPS like Zarah Sultana speaking out and questioning this Government – if Labour now came out and backed the UCU’s call in full we could force this Government into another U turn and protect staff, students and the wider society in this public health crisis.

  • Marshajane Thompson is National Coordinator of UCU’s Fund the Future Campaign and former Director of Campaigns and Events for the Labour Party.

Get involved:

  • This week UCU will hold a follow up event with Independent SAGE at 12.30 on Friday (see here) live on UCU Facebook and next Monday September 14 will be joined at their TUC fringe by Kate Green Shadow Education of state for education, Larissa Kennedy NUS President and Roger McKenzie Assistant General Secretary of UNISON (more information here.)
  • Find out more about the UCU’s Fund the Future campaign at https://fundthefuture.org.uk/

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