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15 reasons why face-to-face teaching should not be compulsory in a pandemic

The position of Sussex UCU, as confirmed by vote in our EGM of 28 September, is that face-to-face (in-person) teaching, like all on-campus work during the pandemic, should be voluntary, and not compulsory, and should not carry the threat of disciplinary actions and dismissal.

Sussex UCU supports the UCU national position that universities should take all essential teaching online. However in the interim it supports members who want to teach face-to-face. Its core demand is that face-to-face teaching must be voluntary.

Sussex UCU is committed to the resumption of face-to-face teaching when it is safe to do so, and believes that during a pandemic teachers are best placed to make their own decisions about what mode of teaching is best for staff, students, and the wider community.

Below we lay out 15 concerns members have with compulsory face-to-face teaching. The list is not exhaustive and is not in order of importance.

1. Public health: at a time of high infection rates and with a projected third wave in the New Year, travel to and from work risks spreading the virus to the public, students and colleagues. While for some staff travel to work resulting from compulsory face-to-face teaching will be low risk, for others travel it could worsen the public health crisis and add an unnecessary burden to people in the NHS, public transport, and other kinds of front-line work.

2. Damage to inter-family care: visits to residential sheltered accommodation are highly restricted during the pandemic. They may be banned for friends and relatives involved in face-to-face teaching. Imposing face-to-face teaching might deny staff the opportunity to support vulnerable family members in a time of increased isolation.

3. Deterioration of collegiality: we are all working hard to stay collegial. Compulsory face-to-face teaching could damage that by making scapegoats of colleagues unable to comply. It could also harden management positions and lead to the deterioration of working relations between staff and line managers.

4. Precarity: the burden and risk of compulsory face-to-face teaching is likely to particularly affect those precariously employed or on fixed term contracts because they will feel greater pressure to attend or ‘fill in the gaps’ when others are unable to be on campus.

5. Inequality (race): some ethnic groups are more vulnerable to coronavirus than others. Compulsory face-to-face teaching then places some colleagues at disproportionate risk. It could also lead to the scapegoating or institutional bullying of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff who feel that they cannot come to work because of risk to themselves as individuals or people in their social circles. We are not confident that the individualised risk assessment tool proposed to manage exemption from compulsory face-to-face adequately addresses these issues.

6. Inequality (disability): some colleagues with disabilities are more vulnerable to coronavirus. Compulsory face-to-face teaching could also lead to the scapegoating or institutional bullying of disabled staff who feel that they cannot come to work because of risk to themselves or people in their social circles.

7. Inequality (gender): we are all aware of the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on women, principally in their role as primary carers. The compulsion to return to campus will affect those with caring commitments, whether those be of children or elderly relatives. Likewise, these proposals will make life difficult for colleagues with school age children who are asked to isolate because of cases of Covid-19 at their school.

8. Mental health: compulsory face-to-face teaching is harmful to staff mental health. In a sector already characterised by over-work and anxiety, the threat of disciplinary action for refusing to teach in circumstances in which you do not feel safe is a threat to mental health and contrary to any alleged commitment to ‘Kindness on Campus’.

9. Institutional bullying: compulsory face-to-face teaching amounts to institutional bullying. To make referrals to occupational health compulsory is intimidating and can feed into disciplinary action, and potential dismissal.

10. Overwork (professional services staff): promising a minimum level of face-to-face teaching requires monitoring and administration. That places unacceptable pressure on our already overworked professional services colleagues, who are additionally stretched due to colleagues having left under the University’s voluntary redundancy programme.

11. Overwork (academic managers): promising a minimum level of face-to-face teaching requires line management and staff discipline. That places unacceptable pressure on Heads of School, Heads of Department and Directors of Teaching and Learning, who are already stretched, and who are keen to support their staff not coerce them with threats.

12. Overwork (academic staff): requiring staff to teach two seminars (one online and one face-to-face) may double the teaching workload of staff with no recompense, at a time when everyone is already overwhelmed personally and professionally. The alternative of Hyflex teaching (see next point) has widely been found cumbersome and exhausting.

13. Pedagogy (practice): for those unable or unwilling to double their workload, Hyflex teaching (teaching a class simultaneously online and in person) may be deemed pedagogically unsatisfactory by some staff. While this mode of teaching may work for others, forcing experienced teachers to adopt pedagogic models they know to be unsuitable will worsen the student experience and their education.

14. Pedagogy (expertise): compulsory face-to-face teaching in order to meet a minimum level of face-to-face provision could result in some classes (where regular staff cannot conduct face-to-face) being covered by those who do not have the experience to teach on the same module. This would be detrimental to students and reneges on the commitment to deliver excellence in education. The alternative of raising the level of face-to-face teaching in other modules to compensate would put additional pressure on teaching staff and academic managers.

15. Governance: as (pending vaccines or regular mass testing) nothing has changed from a public health perspective since the start of the Autumn Term, enforcing face-to-face teaching will further undermine confidence in the university management to deliver a programme of education that is in the public interest, and in the interest of staff and students.

If the University of Sussex would like to encourage face-to-face teaching, rather than demand compliance, University management should continue to provide assurances on public health while addressing the sincerely held concerns of staff. That entails genuine consultation on any proposals for Spring Term teaching. Management should support both staff who want to teach face-to-face and staff who reason they should teach online. Management should trust staff to make their own assessments of how best to work and live in the pandemic. The University must also make efforts to rebuild trust, to meaningfully acknowledge how much staff are giving personally and professionally, and to replicate the collegiality and good moral sense that staff and students regularly show to each other.

Sussex UCU

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