University backlash: Anger as lecturer union warn of ‘major public health crisis’

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UCU, the largest lecturers union, warned of a “major public health crisis” when campuses reopen this month. It is urging vice-chancellors to move teaching online until January and keep students at home, claiming the migration of “a million plus” students this autumn “is a recipe for disaster”. Universities are preparing to welcome youngsters back to campus for the first time since March, with most operating a “blended learning” approach of online lectures and face-to-face tutorials and labs, at least until Christmas.

A raft of social distancing and hygiene protocols, including one-way systems and masks, will be in force to stem the spread of coronavirus, including confining students to small “bubbles” in residences.

But UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, warned it is a dangerous move.

“Moving a million plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave,” she warned.

“The recent fiasco over exam results and their fallout has left universities under even greater pressure. It is time for the government to finally take some decisive and responsible action in this crisis and tell universities to abandon plans for face-to-face teaching.”

“Refusing to act now will only store up problems further down the line as courses are forced to move online and students forced into lockdown,” Ms Grady said.

“It is no good blaming students later on for a problem that could have been avoided by government action.”

But Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay said he did not accept union concerns.

“I think universities, like the rest of the economy, need to come back and I think students need to be able to do so,” he said.

Universities UK president Julia Buckingham said: “Many staff want to return to in-person teaching, research and other activities where it is safe and appropriate to do so.”

They are also mindful of the benefits of in-person teaching and support for students’ well-being and development, she said.

The Department for Education said that it is “confident that universities are well-prepared for the return of students”.

“The safety and well-being of university staff and students is always our priority,” it added.

“We are keeping our guidance under constant review, and are currently updating our advice including on face coverings.”

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