University of Manchester campus. Photo: Góngora / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, licence linked at bottom of article University of Manchester campus. Photo: Góngora / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, licence linked at bottom of article

Dragan Plavšić considers the growing opposition to universities re-opening as infection rates rise

The mood in universities is increasingly turning against a return to campuses and face-to-face teaching as start of term approaches and the contradiction between management assurances about Covid-19 and reality sharpens.

University managers have been busy issuing their now formulaic assurances that government guidelines are being followed and that campuses will be Covid-secure. But can we trust guidelines issued by a government whose priority we all know isn’t health but getting us back to work? And does anyone really believe campuses can be made ‘Covid-secure’, especially with infection rates rising and a testing system in meltdown? The sheer absurdity of that claim is shown up by the fact that 740 schools have so far reported Covid-19 outbreaks and up to 25,000 teachers are self-isolating.

The evidence against a return to campuses is overwhelming, putting official assurances into stark perspective. Here’s a summary of it in ten short points.

Ten points against a return to campuses

1The rising UK-wide daily infection rates doubling every 7-8 days and raising the official R rate to 1-1.2. It could be rather higher. Imperial College, whose research was based on the largest programme of community testing for Covid-19, has estimated the R rate to be 1.7 or 50% higher than the official one. Anything over 1 means Covid-19 is rising exponentially;

2The age group with the highest rate of infection is the university student age group. Imperial College found that infection rates among 18-24 year olds was almost double (25 in 10,000) the national average (13 in 10,000);

3If infected, members of the university student age group are typically asymptomatic, making a fully functioning test and trace system indispensable to prevent spread;

4However, the UK’s test and trace system is in meltdown. Just as universities are set to open, Matt Hancock has been calling on people who are asymptomatic (such as students) not to get tested. This fiasco will take weeks to resolve;

5The nationwide risks of spreading infection as a million students travel to campuses, and the heightened risks for populations of university towns;

6The well-established enhanced health risks to older teaching staff from on-campus face-to-face teaching. As Boris Johnson told the Liaison Select Committee on 16 September, ‘What we are seeing is unfortunately the progression of the disease from younger groups, who are much less prone to its worst effects, up into the older groups’ and ‘we must expect those infections proportionately to lead to mortality. That is the reality.’

7The well-established enhanced health risks to BAME students and staff, and their families, especially those living in multi-generational households. Imperial College found that infection rates among Black and Asian people was 50% higher than the national average (20 instead of 13 in 10,000);

8The ‘very serious threat’ (in the words of Matt Hancock) of a second wave as temperatures drop in autumn and winter, assuming it isn’t already under way;

9The report of the Independent SAGE group of experts, led by Sir David King, the former Scientific Adviser to the government, published on 21 August, advising universities against resuming on-campus face-to-face teaching because risks of infection were too high;

10The evidence from the United States, following the earlier return of colleges and universities in August, of more than 61,000 cases of Covid-19 since late August with thousands of new infections reported in the first week of September, according to the New York Times, which has been tracking rising infections. 

UCU’s response

Until late August, UCU’s national leadership avoided taking a decisive stand against a return to campuses. This was a mistake, as some branches were sucked into reflecting management priorities instead of opposing them. Had it backed the arguments socialists were putting against a return, there’s no doubt that we would be in a stronger position now.

Nevertheless, this is definitely a case of better late than never. On 29 August, the national leadership issued a call for ‘government and universities to switch to fully online teaching as the default for the duration of next term’ in order to ‘prevent a situation that could see universities becoming the care homes of a second wave of covid-19’.

As the leadership acknowledged, this call followed the lead of a ‘number of UCU branches [who] have already called on their employer to withdraw as much face-to-face teaching and other activities as possible’ adding that ‘we are now encouraging all branches to push their employer to take this approach’.

UCU branch motions

As a result, UCU branches have now been passing motions that call on university management:

1To adopt a default position in favour of online learning;

2To abandon plans for on-campus face-to-face teaching for the coming term (except where there are compelling pedagogical reasons to the contrary, such as practical work);

Additionally, in the event that on-campus face-to-face teaching proceeds regardless of the multiple risks and warnings, to call on university management:

3To arrange without delay the regular testing and tracing of staff and students for Covid-19;

4To publish without delay any contingency plans in the event of an outbreak of Covid-19; and

5To agree that no-one will be required to undertake on-campus face-to-face teaching if they express the wish not to do so.

Declaring a dispute over ‘a matter of life and death’

Motions along these and similar lines have now been formally passed by UCU branches at Bournemouth, Coventry, Exeter, Hertfordshire, Imperial, Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan, Sheffield Hallam, Sussex and Warwick universities.

Some universities – St Andrews, Birkbeck, Queen Mary’s University of London, Southampton, University College London and Westminster – have announced moves to fully online teaching or delayed their return to on-campus teaching.

Others are sticking to their guns despite the overwhelming evidence, which means UCU will have to step up pressure locally and nationally.

Anglia Ruskin UCU has taken a decisive lead here. On 8 September it served notice on the University that it was declaring an official dispute over plans to return to campus and face-to-face teaching. As it stated, ‘Our decision to declare a dispute has not been made lightly, but there is far too much at stake. It is a matter of life and death.’

This is a lead we will all need to follow if university managements refuse to budge.

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Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).