Why a Duck?

Fans of the Marx Brothers may recognise the title of a sketch that focused on the inability of one of the brothers to properly enunciate the word ‘viaduct’. Confusion reigned with hilarious consequences.

The confusion that we are experiencing around our employer’s attempts to justify and indeed facilitate non essential face to face contact would be equally laughable if it wasn’t so tragic!

First principles of risk management are simply being ignored (i.e. remove the risk if possible) in favour of mitigation through the use of face coverings and visors even though the latter have been declared as insufficient and virtually worthless.

Scientific evidence of the risks associated with congregation in enclosed spaces for extended periods (the government’s own advice suggests longer than 15 minutes) is also being conveniently set aside, with lecturers being advised to don ineffective visors so that students who need to can see their lips moving.

But why the obsession with face to face teaching?

First and foremost this appears to be ‘in the interests of the student experience’ despite the fact that the mitigation measures themselves contribute to an adverse experience. Wearing a covering for an hour or more is hardly pleasant and for some downright distressing. Even making oneself heard through a face covering especially when social distancing is being employed is a challenge and can be frustrating. Reports of students removing coverings to make themselves heard make a mockery of risk assessments that rely at least in part upon face covering, and will be concerning to those around them who witness such actions.

Sheffield Hallam recently announced that it would move all teaching teaching online, and further postponed some practical sessions as a response to tier 3 status being declared in South Yorkshire.

Some might consider that both sensible and pragmatic; indeed most recent government guidance on Lockdown 2 suggests that “Universities and adult education settings should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible”.

UCU continues to call for ALL non essential teaching sessions including tutorials to be moved on-line not only in the interests of staff and students safety but also to ensure that all students get a consistent experience, including those from overseas who we already know will be unable in some instances to participate in face to face activities and may as a consequence be faced with delays to their programme of study – a challenge both for them and for the staff expected to support them.

When is a University not Open?

UCU believes that face to face teaching should only be undertaken where there in no alternative, which is entirely consistent with HSE guidance that risk should be eliminated if that is possible before resorting to the alternatives of PPE and other mitigating measures

Despite this UoB remains committed to face to face learning as a significant proportion of the offer to students, citing government direction that universities should stay open as part of the argument for doing so.

It further argues that face to face teaching is essential to students learning.

Two questions are raised by this approach.

Firstly what are students to think if at some point face to face learning is withdrawn by government direction? The inevitable conclusion is that by the university’s own admission that makes the offer substandard.

Secondly, if face to face is withdrawn will the university consider itself effectively closed?

The reality of course is that the university will then insist that student learning experience is being maintained through the online offer, and that it remains open for business, both of which UCU would agree with.

Why then does it insist on running non-essential face to face teaching sessions that place staff and students at unnecessary increased risk?

Competitive Edge

News has reached us of how one local institution is seeking to maintain Covid security in a HE environment.

Key features of their approach are :
* minimising face to face interaction (i.e. only essential practical teaching sessions)
* mandatory face covering.
* marshals deployed at entrances and across campus to ensure face covering and social distancing rules are being observed.

Feedback from one relieved family member of a student is that the measures signal to families that their children’s safety is being given top priority as well as giving confidence to the students themselves.

This sensible approach seems apposite particularly in the light of recent government announcements signaling a shift away from reliance on personal responsibility to a more robust and prescriptive approach.

No doubt also the institution has recognised that headlining safety can give an institution the edge when recruiting students, and that safety is more than ever a key element of student experience.

Take Control

Our employer has committed to undertaking individual risk assessments prior to a return to work; your line manager is responsible for ensuring that they are done, and you should by now have been asked whether an individual assessment is necessary.

Despite this members are contacting the union to express concerns about the prospect of returning to work, in particular where they have specific issues that they feel might preclude them from doing so in a safe way.

The regularity of such enquiries suggests that in many cases those commitments have not been fulfilled, possibly due to a lack of adequate training or excessive workloads. If you have not been approached, or if your circumstances have changed since being assessed, you are well advised to discuss this with your manager as a matter of urgency.

Face Facts

UCU remains concerned that a lack of clarity over the use of face coverings has the potential to lead to tensions and even overt conflict in the classroom where students are unhappy at the conduct of their peers. The “personal responsibility” stance adopted leaves the decision to wear a covering in the hands of the individual. Whilst there are often sound reasons for not using a mask, we know all too well that others may wilfully disregard these reasonable precautions on rather more flimsy grounds.

UCU believes that a clear statement on expectations and potential sanctions is essential to ensure that student behaviour in respect of face covering and social distancing does not lead to chaos. Doing so will protect staff from potential student complaints when they attempt to manage difficult situations.

Faced With a Dilemma

New advice from Westminster confirms that there is a case for face coverings in schools, particularly in areas where enhanced COVID restrictions have been imposed.

In the light of this perhaps the time is right for a review of Bradford University’s ‘personal responsibility’ approach that creates more problems than it solves.

Mask wearers may refuse to share rooms with the bare faced, whilst at the same time the bare faced insist on entering the same rooms. Who will arbitrate in such circumstances? What sanctions will be imposed on mask wearing students who refuse to participate in teaching where others are bare faced, bearing in mind that the mask wearers are seeking to protect those around them and not themselves?

Mask wearing staff and students will be faced with the anxiety of attempting to travel in narrow corridors and public spaces amongst others for whom mask wearing is not a priority.

The only practical approach is a clear and unequivocal requirement to wear face coverings as a ‘safety first’ statement. Not only will that raise the level of COVID security but it will also reinforce the message that safety is the number one priority in the planning of a return to campus.

Precarious Times

The BBC article Thirteen UK universities ‘facing insolvency’ articulates the fears of many of us especially those in less prestigious institutions that may be vulnerable in a “dog fight” for home ug’s.

This strikes to the very heart of the “Funding the Future” campaign but most importantly demonstrates the urgency of the situation now that it has been exacerbated by Covid19.

In the same way that the importance of a well funded and valued NHS has been exposed during Covid, the market model of HE is now revealed as fundamentally flawed and the risks that come with it simply too high.

Thirteen UK universities ‘facing insolvency’The fallout from Covid-19 poses a “significant threat” to UK higher education, analysis suggests.

The Folly of BEP Exposed!

BEP’s obsession with the Target Operating Model meant that almost all areas were designed down to an optimum that left no room for error and no capacity to accommodate the unexpected.

Fast forward to the present, where the “unexpected” Covid crisis has forced the University into technological alternatives to the traditional lecture – and a mad scramble to replace expertise lost during the last BEP round.

Alongside that the wisdom of a workload model that expects 100% is itself being tested, as are the nerves of staff who are being pushed to breaking point by excessive workload demands.

That Blended Learning Thing

Those that were able to attend the Covid-19 update today hosted by Shirley and others may well have spotted a snippet of information hidden away in some of the presentation by our PVC Teaching & Learning.

We were given assurances that the student offer would be very firmly rooted in a campus experience, whilst acknowledging that there would be a need for some online teaching as a part of the offer.

This “blended” offer will perhaps come as no surprise, but references to the distance learning MBA already a feature of the FoMLSS portfolio (it is top 10 in the world you know!) suggest that the blended offer will not simply rely on a few slides uploaded to Canvas to meet the “on-line” expectations, but that instead much of the material will have to be produced “from the ground up” as it were.

The implication then is that there is much to do, and that the burden of that will fall firmly on the shoulders of academic colleagues already overburdened by the complexity and challenges of operating off campus during the marking period.

A steady stream of questions indicated that there was real concern that time is running out, especially when the indications are that a significant change to working practices will be necessary.

Staff need a plan – sooner rather than later!