Following last week’s announcements from the UK government regarding students returning to higher education (HE) in spring term 2021, and on the ‘roadmap out of lockdown‘, the Branch is encouraged by UCU to take the following steps, in line with motion L2 ‘Using the law to maintain our safety‘ passed at Congress 2020:

  • ascertain our management’s definition of ‘practical and creative subjects’ and seek clarification of which and how many students fall into this cohort (subjects, year groups under consideration, how many students, how many on campus already)
  • what plans are in place for returning practical students at your institution, starting today (8 March) and then weekly in four week blocks up to and through Easter to end of academic year?
  • what arrangements are in place for assessment of practical students and their exams?
  • what is the timeline for returns for each subject (staggered, big bang etc.)?
  • what are the arrangements for student testing before and on arrival?
  • has management given details of updated risk assessments and control measures relating to returns and to the protection of vulnerable staff? (UCU latest guidance is here)

Our responses as a Branch at the University of Exeter will allow UCU to both identify best practice within the sector and identify whether we need further support where the management response is poor.

UCU needs this information to identify and defend members from entering unsafe workspaces, so we need to be discussing this with the branch. We need to respond weekly until the end of academic year.

Below is the response from HR to our Urgent letter requesting answers on new demands for face-to-face teaching. This partially addresses some of the questions above, but more answers are being sought.

Dear Claire and Sharon,

I refer to your email of 3 March 2021 and respond to each of your points in turn below.

As Linda Peka advised you in her email of 3 March, we confirm that our plans have been shared with Public Health Devon (PHD)  in our weekly meetings with them. They have no concerns with the arrangements we are proposing for resuming some face-to-face teaching with the safety parameters we have put in place for safe teaching spaces. PHD will continue to support us with guidance to ensure that our learning and working environment continues to be Covid-secure. We have confirmed to PHD that we will continue to review our working environment. We can also confirm that Public Health Cornwall have no concerns with the arrangements we are making.

As you will have heard reported in the Silver Policy Group, we estimate that up to 60% of students may be on campus. You have also heard us comment that we should not rush to judge students for this increase. Some students will have remained in Exeter and Penryn over the Christmas and New Year vacation and others will have returned to their term-time accommodation before the third lockdown was announced on 4 January. Government guidance has been to ask students not to travel across the country but they are permitted to return if they do not have access to appropriate study facilities or for health or safety reasons. In our messages to students we have repeated government advice both in respect to avoiding travel and recognised exceptions. Where they have chosen to return and use campus facilities, it is necessary for the University to ensure that they do so in a way which is safe, protecting both them and others on campus.

From 8 March, face-to-face teaching will only be provided for those students who are studying on one of the programmes which are eligible for the resumption of face-to-face teaching. As you will see from the DVC Education’s email of 26 February to Directors of Education (enclosed), DoEs were asked to consider “what on-campus activity should recommence, on those programmes permitted under the guidance”. Since the students on these programmes are permitted to return with the expectation of face-to-face teaching from 8 March, we do not accept that this will draw students on other programmes back to Exeter/Penryn if they are not already here.

As you will see from the DVC Education’s communication to DoEs, we are taking a balanced approach within the spirit of the government’s guidance by seeking to maximise the experiential learning opportunities which can be safely provided to those students who will be studying on-campus from 8 March because they are studying on programmes which are eligible for face-to-face teaching to resume. As lockdown restrictions are eased, we will continue to carefully and cautiously expand our on-campus activity by balancing the needs of the whole University community – both staff and students – and the wider community. You will be aware that many colleagues and many students are reporting poor wellbeing and a need for more connection and it is reasonable for us to explore opportunities to provide this for those disciplines covered by the 8 March guidance.  The large-scale control of student movement is achieved by government through the limited list of programme areas permitted to return; the local controls – Covid-secure spaces and regular testing – ensure that the teaching and learning can be safely conducted for those students and staff.

The list of priority disciplines where face-to-face teaching is being planned was listed in the Registrar’s bulletin of 3 March. The timetabling team is working to incorporate departments’ plans into a revised timetable and make this available to students and their lecturers by the end of this week. It is the nature of timetabling these sessions that means that there will be a gradual introduction of timetabled face-to-face teaching sessions on campus across the week and we can provide further information when the timetable rebuild is complete. As the DVC Education advised you in the meeting on 2 March, he would be happy to meet you again when the full details are available.

The corporate risk assessment is currently being reviewed to take account of the new DfE guidance. Trade union representatives will see the updated document in their role on the Silver Policy group.

Contrary to the statement in your email, we are not proposing changes in teaching practice. We are satisfied that the teaching spaces set up and guidance issued at the beginning of the academic year remains appropriate, with some minor updating (e.g. to take account of the updated guidance on visors). We are reviewing all the teaching spaces which will be used from 8 March to ensure they are set up as intended in the original plan and any areas that need fixing are progressed. Heads of Department have been asked to share with colleagues a set of slides giving a general update and reminder on Covid secure arrangements and this also included a request for those running practical sessions to update the risk assessment, with support from Technical Services or Health and Safety teams as required.

In February guidance was also sent to managers asking them to consider their workplace risk assessments again in anticipation of any increased on-campus activity.

All colleagues returning to work on campus should follow the guidance about returning to campus. This includes the mandatory online training, the local building induction and the personal risk assessment process, starting with the Covid-age calculator. We would encourage colleagues to revisit this information. Colleagues working on campus are also strongly encouraged to take two LFD tests each week. Heads of Department have been reminded of this in the information which has been shared with them. I would also draw your attention to the recent report of the Children’s Task and Finish Group: Paper on Higher Education Settings[1], which concludes that available evidence shows that “minimal cases of transmission were attributed to face-to-face learning environments” (and that those instances where transmission did occur were associated with guidance not being followed) and that “environmental and behavioural infection control measures, increased testing, use of remote learning, and self-isolation by students appear to have been effective during the small amount of face-to-face learning over the Autumn term”

The DVC Education’s 26 February email summarises our understanding of the guidance which government has shared with higher education institutions and representatives bodies. In his conversation with you on 2 March, the DVC Education explained that the University was satisfied that the arrangements we are making are consistent with the guidance which had been issued by the Department for Education and the Universities Minister and information provided by the DfE to both UUK and the Russell Group.

For those students on the eligible programmes, it is reasonable for us to consider what experiential learning can be provided to them in the short window between 8 March and the end of term.

As you will be aware from your involvement in Campus Restart, we will ensure that teaching will take place in a Covid-secure environment, supported by regular asymptomatic testing for both staff and students.

I would also remind you of the assurance both I and the Vice-Chancellor have previously given to trade union representatives, inviting you to refer to me anyone who, having gone through each of the return-to-Campus working steps, feels that their concerns have not been addressed and they are being forced to work on campus.

We trust that this information will reassure you and UCU members. We will continue to update UCU representatives – and give you an opportunity to ask questions and shape University actions – through your membership of the Silver Policy Group and your regular meetings with colleagues in Health and Safety.

Best wishes

Imelda

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Imelda Rogers, FCIPD
Director of Human Resources