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Face to face teaching and voluntary on-campus work

We note the messages to staff and students in the last few days from the VC, the PVC for Education, and the Chief Operating Officer, as well as the email to all staff Return to campus: guidance for all staff, and the most recent Return to campus webinar.

A consistent theme of these messages is that the campus has been made 'Covid-secure', that 'blended learning' including a substantial proportion of face-to-face teaching is going ahead, and that by default staff are to come onto campus to work.

Furthermore, the VC's message tells us that government sources have informed him that staff providing face-to-face teaching are to be considered ‘essential workers’ and therefore exempt from current government guidance to work from home when possible, and claims that this position is justified 'In recognition of the impact the pandemic is having on the mental health of young people'.

In response to these messages we wish to reassert the two core demands of the joint statement we issued with Sussex Unite, Sussex Unison and University of Sussex Students Union on 8th September. These are that for the autumn term the University must:

(a) move all teaching online by default

(b) announce that working on campus will remain voluntary, as it has been during the summer

We regret that, although members of the University's senior management met with reps of the four unions to discuss these and our other demands on 16th September, they did not concede either of them.

Given the present situation it should hardly be necessary to justify the above demands. We simply point to the following facts:

(1) According to the Covid Symptom Study the prevalence of Covid-19 across the country is now nearly 10 times as high as a month ago and rising rapidly, especially among young people. A calculation by one of our members estimates that over 11,000 UK students are Covid-positive, of whom about 70% are asymptomatic, and that this figure is rising by about 6% a day.

(2) Since the start of term over 20 universities in the UK have reported outbreaks of Coronavirus. Despite all the efforts made by staff to reduce the risk on campus, there is a strong chance of the same happening at Sussex.

(3) Modelling by a team at Bristol University has estimated that, based on the prevalence rates in the home areas of students, if the university follows Public Health England guidelines but continues to teach face-to-face then by the end of term 20% of the whole student population will have contracted Covid-19. To prevent this outcome the authors find that ‘reducing face-to-face teaching is likely to be the single most effective intervention’.

(4) The BMJ article we cite in our statement finds that, in order to achieve the lowest of its three levels of risk for a prolonged indoor event with speaking and high occupancy, the space must be well ventilated, all participants must wear masks, and 2m social distancing must be maintained ('Two metres or one: what is the evidence for physical distancing in Covid-19?' (25 August), figure 3). At Sussex the plan for face-to-face teaching does not require teachers to wear masks and requires only 1m social distancing. Therefore by the article's criteria face-to-face teaching as presently envisaged at Sussex is not Low Risk but Medium Risk.

(5) Aside from the risk of hospitalisation and even death among older people, there is growing evidence of Long Covid and post-Covid organ damage including among those of typical student age. Insofar as face-to-face teaching exacerbates any outbreak of Covid-19 among the university community, it will put the health of students at risk, as well as that of staff, of members of the local community, and of relatives they visit when they go home.

(6) Given that Black and Minority Ethnic staff and students are at greater risk of serious illness if they contract Covid-19, exposing BAME staff and students to the possibility of catching the illness through continuing with face-to-face teaching is discriminatory. Instructing all BAME staff and students to teach and study exclusively online would be equally unacceptable. Only taking all teaching online, until it is genuinely safe for everyone to teach and study face-to-face, is equitable from a race-equality point of view.

(7) Using student mental health to justify face to face teaching frames staff as front-line mental health workers. Although teaching staff care deeply about the mental health and well being of students, we are neither contracted nor trained to provide this kind of support. This justification also ignores the danger to students' mental health from being expected to attend teaching events which they may not believe are safe. It also ignores the mental health of teaching staff, many of whom are overburdened and already at breaking point.

(8) The VC's claim that 'the feeling in Westminster' is that staff delivering face-to-face teaching should be seen as 'essential workers, like school teachers' both overlooks the fundamental differences between schools and universities and erases the work of Professional Services staff.

(9) The claim that face-to-face teachers are 'essential workers' has been mirrored in messages from other VCs in the last few days. Yet the government definition of ‘essential workers’ makes no reference to Higher Education staff. It is true that current government advice states that:

Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so. Public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work where necessary.

However the university is not part of the public sector, and the government has never defined Higher Education as an 'essential service'. We believe that the messages from VCs relay an ad hoc call from senior ministers to them to persist with face-to-face teaching in HE, which is politically driven rather than based on a sober assessment of the risks.

We again call on the senior management at Sussex to move all teaching online by default and to confirm that until further notice work on campus will remain voluntary. We will unconditionally support any member who declines, on health and safety grounds, to work on campus under the present conditions.

UCU Exec and Reps


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