Members have contributed a collection of thoughts and opinions structured around five key questions asked by a journalist from the Guardian some time ago. This is a snapshot in time. We accept that there may need to be updates, discussions and corrections. Please feel free to contact us to contribute any additional thoughts or feedback. This would be very helpful to guide the branch in raising issues and in ways of resisting unhelpful changes in the forthcoming period. 

1. Does the university plan to shift more courses/classes online? If so, to what extent? Will this include undergraduate teaching? Is a private education company involved?

The University Education Strategy 2019-2025 has a whole section and is very committed “to capitalise on digital transformation”, the priorities of which can be found here. Whilst prior to the Covid-19 crisis, this move towards digital transformation was deliberative, evidence-led, carefully considered, gradualist and in support of regular on campus provision, with the Covid-19 crisis, this move has been rushed, haphazard, has not involved the consultation with the most important party that will need to carry out the core business of teaching, assessment and tutoring online, that is the academics, and most importantly their labour representatives, the UCU. 

The shift to online classes will definitely include undergraduates and postgraduates in the next academic year unless a Covid-19 vaccine is discovered or Covid-19 miraculously disappears before September.

Whilst online/blended provision has been touted as a solution to the current Covid-19 crisis, there have been rumours that the university wants to exploit the following crisis to develop and consolidate online/blended teaching on a more long-term and permanent basis. Again, this is being done without consultation from academics/UCU. 

We are not sure if a private education company is involved.

2. What training have staff received about delivering learning online?

None, so far. Staff have been issued the Enhance Project policy, which provides minimum expectations that will have significant impact on workload, well-being, and have GDPR consequences. Staff have been provided with internal links to resources and guidance put together by IT support, or guidance and best practice gathered from information shared by staff themselves, who contributed to move teaching online in the last two weeks of term at the start of April, as well as an infinite number of other external links/resources offering guidance. The main training method will be peer support. (08-06-2020) Staff have been allocated to small-size remote teaching support groups. The aims of these groups are:

  • To share issues while developing plans for remote delivery of teaching and assessment.
  • To share practical help and know-how about remote delivery.
  • To spread best practise and to raise common problems/training needs with the DoEs.

Although, there are some ELE resources coming online for staff, these are not yet fully reviewed by UCU and we should have been consulted on these beforehand.

It would be good to have members’ views on the usefulness or otherwise of these resources.

An email from the Registrar on 28-05-2020 confirmed that students had received an email regarding the university’s plans for online/blended learning next year and were also given the Project Enhance policy, thus, crystallising students’ expectations on how academic staff will teach online next year without any prior consultation with staff/the UCU.

Within the project, a group of current Exeter University students is being recruited to act as Digital Learning Assistants and Digital Learning Developers, who will help translate face to face course content to blended/online content across all the disciplines. So, the people who do not have educational experience, subject expertise, and are amateur digital players (they may be good at social media or video games, but do they have training or experience in online/blended learning development and provision?) will be our digital champions. 

3. How will staffing be affected? Are redundancies on the cards? If casual staff are being cut will permanent staff be expected to do more teaching?

The workload increase associated with transforming teaching, tutoring and assessment from face to face provision to online provision is significant. The process is also highly time-consuming. We doubt that the inexperienced DLAs and DLDs that the university is currently recruiting will be able to really lighten our workload. The recent document on Department teaching models (08-06-2020) explains that “For accessibility, it is a legal requirement that videos are captioned… Captioning is a time-intensive task that can be usefully undertaken by a DLD”. There might be an improvement from automated captioning, but we already know that staff will have to check and correct those. 

Moreover, given the financial crisis, will this project be funded at the expense of part-time/non-permanent staff members currently providing essential services to the University? See also Preliminary Statement in Response to New Student Internship Advertisements (28-05-2020).

One can even advance the opinion that the Project Enhance document was produced without any engagement with the UCU because of these two stark realities.

At several high level meetings with VC, PVC, HoD, there has been a standard narrative (almost like a PR campaign) from the university leadership, that goes along the following lines:

  1. we did a magnificent job in turning one week’s of teaching to online provision at the end of last term and at how great we have been in providing support to students, colleagues and with assessment marking and exams, etc.;
  2. that these are extraordinary times requiring extraordinary measures;
  3. that the university is financially at risk….and thus we need to make a greater effort at reducing costs to a minimum – from stopping building works, etc. to carrying out pay cuts initially at leadership levels, but these could occur across the board;
  4. that staff layoffs could occur….and that we need to pull together to get through next year. 

Obviously after such a message, and particularly the closing message of potential layoffs, staff become shocked into putting up with things like Project Enhance, which we believe, though, will facilitate layoffs, the justification for taking up greater workload, etc.

Unfortunately layoffs (i.e., non-renewals) are already in the books in terms of Associate Lecturers and GTAs. Research/Study leave granted to E&R staff are already being retracted. There is no parity between the ways that these are being interpreted between Colleges or Departments. And it is possible that promotion applications will not be accepted in the near future.

Moreover, it looks highly unlikely that the Study Abroad will go ahead next year (or at best will run for half a term). This will have a significant effect on our staff-student ratio as a lot more students will need modules taught at Exeter than originally planned. A reduction of AL/GTA budget will further make this uptake in teaching even more challenging.

4. What adjustment is being offered to staff with underlying health conditions? (How does the university plan to address social distancing on campus?)

We have heard nothing in terms of future provision and given that we are required to work from home at the moment, the university has probably not planned for this. Having said that from the Project Enhance document, there are expectations that staff teach in a blended manner, but some staff have already stated that they do not feel comfortable doing this if next Autumn social distancing is still in effect or if Covid-19 pandemic is still present.

Next is an image shared regarding what the two metre social distancing requirement would entail in a 200 seater lecture theatre: only 19 students would be able to attend! No doubt that with our very limited room space, teaching will be all online next Autumn and if not Spring Terms.

5. What consultation has there been with staff/unions about the above so far?

  • Project Enhance: Zero. This was raised at meetings and the people who were involved in writing up the Project Enhance policy uncomfortably admitted that this was the case, but defended itself by stating that UCU was involved in other strands of planning…

Some consultation at departmental level about teaching models was promised at the start of June. Very late in the game, we have just received those on the evening of 08-06-2020 (in at least one Department). These are standard models for teaching online, without any information about the difference that moving online because of Covid-19 makes to a blended learning model. There is no proper consultation process, only some feedback welcome process with less than 3 days to deviate from the models “to get the number and size of timetabled sessions fixed”. Therefore it is not clear what will be the new norm once all these models and extra workloads unaccounted for have been pushed through the back door. 

  • Project Restart: (Health and safety return to campus) All unions including UCU are being consulted on this. See our Joint Unions Statement.

The planning assumption is no face-to-face lectures in 2020-21, but if allowed, the teaching models would allow lecture classes of max 30 students or 25% room capacity, whichever is smaller. It is not yet clear which lectures would be allowed.

  • Project Experience: Not much information has been given to staff so far, but this is intimately linked to the two above Projects. We are represented on the Covid-19 Student and Staff Experience group. 

Areas of concern that should be raised by UCU/the Branch

  • Assessments: Exeter UCU has asked for adjustments to assessment plans (limit to answers submitted for marking), but there are no consultation plans for REF/DEF assessments in August, as the policy is to give a similar experience to all students. As a branch we could press on for less online marking as printers on campus will become more accessible (linking with Project Restart). I don’t think that buying i-pads with stencils to help annotation will be the ideal solution. There might be less noise around this due to the smaller load for marking in August, but this will not be a long-term solution for staff with high volumes of marking. Another important aspect of assessments is that they guide staff in the way they deliver teaching. Given the short deadline given by timetabling, there is no opportunity currently to review the new teaching models once the assessment options for next year have been reviewed.  
  • Teaching materials: Until now, RECAP was optional. Under the project Enhance, staff are asked to record their lectures. We need the UCU branch to advise members on the best course of action for preparing online materials. If the (hidden) gain and opportunity are to extract from staff recorded materials that can be used again and again, replacing the workforce that produced it (or asking staff to do more work instead), we advise staff to mark each recorded content with the academic year at the start (if this is reused, students will know these are old materials). If the aim is to be a temporary adjustment to the current Covid-19 crisis then this should not be refused. 
  • Copyright: It is really important members are aware of their rights, copyright covers anything you write, make or produce, i.e. all your online content is automatically covered by copyright law, this includes your lecture notes, documents/material produced for a module (e.g. PowerPoints, images, videos), your email messages and discussions, as well as any work produced by our students. Which is why we are recommending you date all Powerpoints etc. you create.

Where no agreement exists and the terms and conditions of lecture capture are nadequate to protect your rights, members should not sign such terms and should set out clearly that any recordings they make can only be used with their permission and that permission is granted only for the duration of the current crisis. 

Further links:

  1. UCU Intellectual Property
  2. GOV.UK Guidance
  • Teaching/online monitoring: It is unclear how digital we will become with Project Enhance and for how long or on a permanent basis, but if online working becomes a long term prospect, the UCU might want to bear in mind how employers have the potential to monitor our online activities. The report on workplace monitors for those working from home runs during the first 7 minutes of this Click episode, which you can watch via BBC iPlayer. Worth a watch! Click, Who is Watching You Work? via @bbciplayer (cannot watch without a TV license).
  • Workloads: This is quite a concern. There is a complete misjudgement of the extra preparation work that moving online represents. There are also considerable worries that once online materials are produced, more new types of works will be asked and past ‘above and beyond’ completed works will not be taken into account, and workloads will continue to increase. There is no time for a break on the horizon until next summer (2021) and already some tensions are arising, as those on light teaching loads argue to protect research time. Those already on large teaching loads may have additional SWARM hours, but no redistribution of work is envisaged, so this is just going to be a smoke-screen. We need clear answers to the issues raised above. Workload issues have already been flagged by the UCU at the university level at the Covid-19 Student and Staff Experience group (Chaired by the Provost, Janice Kay) and will be raised again at the Exeter Academic Meeting on 22nd June (Chaired by Tim Quine), as a matter of Health and Safety, these potentially excessive workloads will risk both the mental and physical health of members, and we are alarmed at the speed with which workloads are expanding. Please do contact us, if you are finding your workload is becoming unmanageable, we will take this evidence directly to the university/Colleges and remind them of their legal duty of care to staff with respect to Health and Safety.
  • Working from home: Exeter UCU has asked for home working allowance, but this has been refused. How can this be justified in the long term? Will the University continue to refuse home working allowance after the crisis if online teaching and working from home is the long-term norm?