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Union steps up call for online teaching after student lockdown


UCU urges prime minister to push teaching online, but universities stick to blended learning plans

A major staff union has urged prime minister Boris Johnson to instruct all universities to move teaching online after thousands of students have been locked down in their halls of residence due to outbreaks of coronavirus on campus.

In a letter to Johnson published on 28 September, University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady told Johnson it was “clear that remote learning should be the default for campus life” during the pandemic. The UCU has been calling for all university teaching to go online to help stop the spread of Covid-19, as have the experts on Independent Sage group.

“Given the rapidly changing situation and the growing prevalence of Covid-19 across the country, and with the number of outbreaks on university campuses even at this early stage of the new academic year, now is the time for swift action and to ensure online teaching becomes the norm,” she wrote.

Grady’s intervention came after around 1,700 students were forced into a two-week lockdown at two Manchester Metropolitan University halls of residence on 25 September after 127 students tested positive for Covid-19.

On 27 September, MMU said it was “urgently preparing a care package” of basic supplies for the students in isolation, along with financial support, and it confirmed that all foundation and first-year students would be taught online only for the next fortnight.

But Malcolm Press, vice-chancellor at MMU, stressed that a blended approach to teaching—where some teaching takes place face-to-face but large lectures are held online—was favoured by the government and would continue to be the main approach at MMU.

“Students tell us they value the mix of online and face-to-face education, and it is important that we do what we can to deliver this in a Covid-secure way,” Press said on 27 September. “It would be unfair to expect students to put their lives on hold.”

According to the BBC, as of 28 September, 40 UK universities have confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Around 600 students isolating in halls at the University of Glasgow have been promised one month’s rent refund and £50 for food and supplies, while mobile catering units were set up to “make it easier to access hot food” during the lockdown.

Elsewhere, shadow education secretary Kate Green urged education secretary Gavin Williamson to promise students they would not be locked down in their halls over Christmas, after health secretary Matt Hancock failed to rule it out.

“It would be deeply unfair to see students forced to remain in their student accommodation, unable to see their families over this period,” she wrote in a letter to Williamson on 26 September.

Despite the widespread outbreaks of Covid-19 at universities and the calls for teaching to move online, the University of Cambridge is still planning for students to arrive at colleges in stages over the next week, before its term starts on 6 October. Students are being asked to follow government guidelines on social distancing and limit social contact with people outside their households.

At Durham University, where term starts today (28 September), teaching will still take place online and face-to-face, and students are arriving in their accommodation.