Staff at universities across the UK are taking the first steps towards industrial action over “unravelling” Covid-19 management, as two more institutions suspended face-to-face teaching in response to virus outbreaks among students.
Representatives of the University and College Union, the largest union for university staff, at Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick said on Wednesday that their branches had voted in favour of disputes or strike ballots over coronavirus risks.
Vicky Blake, the union’s national president, warned of a “serious threat” of industrial action.
It follows weeks of disagreement between management and staff at universities, with students returning for a new term amid a surge in infection rates nationwide.
While most institutions have pushed ahead with in-person teaching and a return to campus, unions have demanded more stringent safety measures. These include online learning as a default positions and halting the return of students until a reliable track-and trace system has been implemented.
Cases of coronavirus have been confirmed at dozens of UK universities, with hundreds of students testing positive at several institutions, including Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield. Thousands of students have been confined to halls of residence across the country.
Newcastle and Northumbria universities on Wednesday announced they would move immediately to online teaching in response to the city’s rising infection rate, which authorities fear is being driven by students.
The decision follows similar moves by universities in Sheffield and Manchester, and a threat by the UCU to ballot its Northumbria members to strike unless the university moved to online delivery.
The only exceptions to the universities’ online policy, which will apply for three weeks before being reviewed, will be courses where in-person teaching is “essential” and for research that must be done on campus. In a letter to university staff, Northumbria’s vice-chancellor Andrew Wathey said it was in line with the Department for Education’s guidance for responding to coronavirus.
Eugene Milne, the city of Newcastle’s director of public health, who advised the change, said measures to control the “large outbreak” among students showed some initial signs of working, but case numbers were still growing and more students had yet to arrive in the city. “It is essential that changes are made to stop the virus spreading,” he said.
UCU welcomed the decision to go to online-only teaching, but said the universities needed to do more to support staff and students.
Warwick university’s UCU branch on Wednesday said members had “unanimously” passed a motion mandating the union to hold a ballot on industrial action, while counterparts in Leeds also voted last week to register a dispute.
James Brackley, a representative at Birmingham UCU, said the union had registered a dispute on Friday over face-to-face teaching and an enforced return to campus, although the university said it had yet to receive formal notification.
Ms Blake said recent votes represented a “serious threat” of future action and indicated a “storm brewing” among university staff. “You will see a theme emerging of staff betrayed by their employers who have spent the summer spinning and selling the myth of a ‘Covid safe’ student experience that is now dangerously unravelling before all of our eyes,” she said.
Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the University and Colleges Employers Association, which speaks on behalf of higher education institutions, said employers had “planned tirelessly” on health and safety issues and had “engaged with staff and students” throughout the process.
“Given how hard employers have been working with unions locally to make campuses as safe as they can be in the current environment, any ballot for industrial action is naturally disappointing,” he said.
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