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UK reacts to third lockdown with concern and confusion


Librarians struggle to secure affordable ebooks as universities call for clarity over lockdown guidance

University staff and students have expressed concern and confusion as the higher education sector braces for the third national lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the rules, due to come into force on 6 January, the whole of England will be plunged into the strictest national lockdown since March 2020, with universities told to move teaching online “until mid-February for all except ‘future critical worker’ courses”.

Only those who “cannot reasonably work from home” can go to work.

Libraries and online access

Johanna Anderson, a subject librarian for the University of Gloucestershire’s School of Natural and Social Sciences, said librarians were feeling “demoralised, exhausted, unheard and frustrated”, as they struggled to secure access to online material for staff and students.

“Only certain students are returning, such as nursing students. But most aren’t and we are going to have to deliver online learning,” she told Research Professional News. “So I am anticipating a deluge of complaints that they cannot access basic reading materials.”

In an open letter in September 2020 signed by more than 2,500 UK-based academic librarians, researchers, university lecturers and students, Anderson called for urgent regulation of “unaffordable” ebooks during the coronavirus crisis, which has made access to online books crucial for students and researchers.

Months later, she claims nothing has changed “except the prices keep going up, access is restricted and there is no political urgency to change anything”.

“Further lockdowns were inevitable, and yet publishers are still being allowed to profiteer from Covid,” she said.

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director for higher education at university IT firm Jisc, said: “This third lockdown will be another testing challenge for the sector, and we hope that our work and latest insights around learning and teaching reimagined might provide guidance in these unsettling times.”

Baldwin added that Jisc would “continue to support research institutions and higher education by providing advice and guidance, and will continue to negotiate sector-wide agreements to maximise access to teaching and learning materials”.

Research managers and REF

Questions were also raised over whether there should be a further delay to the 31 March deadline for submission to Research Excellence Framework.

“I see lots of academic colleagues on social media immediately saying that there should be no further delay, but this work will fall disproportionately on research managers at this stage in the REF cycle as the academic work of the REF has predominantly been done,” Jennifer Stergiou, director of research and innovation services at Northumbria University, told Research Professional News.

“In practice, most research managers don’t want a delay to the REF either but some, especially those in smaller teams, will be placed under immense pressure by the combination of lockdown and a high-stakes fixed deadline,” added Stergiou, who is also chair of Arma, professional association for research management in the UK.

“Perhaps the answer might be increased flexibility—a submission ‘window’ rather than deadline for research management teams which are adversely affected, or at least more time to submit hard copy outputs or handle new formatting requirements (for publication of documents) after the initial deadline.”

Meanwhile, some universities and PhD students have been left confused by the guidance.

PhD students

In a statement on Twitter, the University of Birmingham said: “Following the Prime Minister’s announcement last night, we are still waiting for detailed guidance from the Department for Education about how this affects universities and our different types of students.

“We heard the announcement at the same time as everyone else so are working through many of the concerns and queries that we know you will have. We hope to be able to provide a comprehensive update later today with an email to all students.”

A third-year chemistry PhD student at an English institution told Research Professional News that more clarity was needed on how the lockdown would apply to doctoral students. 

They said: “There are very few people in the school of chemistry both today and yesterday. The biggest effect is the uncertainty of it all—we weren’t mentioned in the PM’s announcement last night. It makes it very difficult to be motivated to start anything when everything could be shut down at the drop of a hat. We need clarity.”

Another PhD student at a different English university told Research Professional News they were “fully supportive of restrictive measures in order to reduce the rate of viral transmission and prevent further rise in deaths and hospitalisations”.

“However, I am frustrated by a lack of support for postgrad researchers,” they said. “Whilst I am grateful for having research I can do from home with relative ease, working from home for almost a year, and thus far the entirety of my PhD studies, has made an already fairly isolating and self-motivated period of time more challenging, with fewer opportunities for collaboration and the risk of not communicating with colleagues or other students for weeks on end unless necessary.”