The University and College Union has said it is being inundated with appeals for support from academic staff on precarious contracts who are fearful about the risks of teaching face to face.
Vicky Blake, president of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “Staff are getting in touch with me at their wits’ end. It’s a horrible thing to be told people are terrified.”
The issue has come to the fore as Covid-19 hotspots have occurred at more than 30 universities around the country, including the University of Glasgow with 124 cases as of Friday; 127 at Manchester Metropolitan; 120 at Edinburgh Napier and 87 at Liverpool University. The number of cases across the institutions as a whole is now upwards of 640.
The situation has led to concern about student welfare, with 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan (MMU) being asked to self-isolate.
UCU has called on MMU to move most teaching online immediately – on Friday the university announced only teaching for foundation and first year students would be delivered virtually.
The union added that the funding model forced universities to put financial concerns ahead of the safety of students, staff and the wider community.
University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “This is the latest catastrophe in a week where wholly predictable – and predicted – Covid outbreaks have caused havoc on campuses across the UK. We warned last month of the problems with moving thousands of students across the country and the time has come for urgent action from ministers and universities to protect staff and students.”
However, education secretary Gavin Williamson has been criticised for failing so far to intervene or make a statement on the problems within higher education over Covid-19.
The UCU has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urge him to make online learning universities’ default position, protect students’ education and stop any further damage to community health.
Grady added: “Manchester Metropolitan University shifting teaching online only for foundation and first year students, for example, exposes the absurdity of trying to continue with blended learning. There is no point encouraging students to come to university to self-isolate for a fortnight and doing so now looks even more like a cynical effort to extract accommodation fees and then worry about what to do.”
Academics on precarious contracts and those with pre-existing health issues or partners with health issues have specific concerns about the situation because many have been asked to teach in physical proximity with students.
One academic at a Russell Group university told the Guardian that her university had dismissed her concerns about infecting her partner, who has Type 1 diabetes and is therefore at a greater risk from coronavirus. “We live in a shared studio apartment with no room to quarantine,” she told the newspaper. “I reported this, along with my own concerns about being BAME, but my head of department has told me I don’t understand the science and the classroom is the safest place to be.”
“I am on a casual teaching-only contract and it’s obvious if I refuse to do this I will risk damaging my career or losing my job,” she said.
We warned last month of the problems with moving thousands of students across the country and the time has come for urgent action from ministers and universities to protect staff and students” – Jo Grady, UCU
The Guardian also reported that at Northumbria University, an academic whose partner nearly died after they both contracted coronavirus in March had sent a letter to colleagues, saying the pressure to return to campus “to deliver teaching that could be delivered online” was “shameful”.
A spokesperson for the university said: “Where colleagues are working on campus we have taken mitigating actions in line with government guidance to make the working environment safe.”
The newspaper also cites the case of a PhD student at the University of St Andrews, who said that in his department PhD students taught 82% of the first- and second-year seminars face-to-face. “We’ve basically been told, if you want one of these tutor groups the teaching will be in person,” he says. “No one is even asking if we are OK with this.”
He told reporters that he earned £81.75 a week (including holiday pay) teaching three undergraduate seminars, putting him below the £120 a week necessary to claim statutory sick pay if he contracted the virus.
St Andrews stated in response that it would ensure flexible workers were covered for pay they might miss if they fell ill and added that PhD students had access to its student support funds.
Similarly, at Cambridge University, the UCU said that nearly half of undergraduate tutorials or “supervisions” were conducted by graduate students, postdoctoral students and freelancers. It said most wouldn’t speak out over fears about their job security.
A university spokesperson said: “We accept this is a worrying time. No member of staff will be compelled to attend face-to-face supervisions if they have concerns about their health and wellbeing.”
In the comments section of the Guardian report one academic stated: “I teach at a Russell Group University and I am scared of going back to teach face to face. When I expressed these fears I was pointed at an Excel spreadsheet that calculated my Covid Age. I wasn’t considered of a risky enough age to be allowed to do fully online. I am on an insecure contract. All our conversations have been around student anxiety and well-being but not much thought is given to teaching staff.”
Another said: “I am a lecturer and due to my health I have been shielding (indeed, I am currently on antibiotics for the second time this month). I am being forced to return to the office when I could do the work (meetings and online teaching) from home. I have just been told to use my common sense when returning to work. No accommodations are being made for the most vulnerable.”