The Socialist 14 October 2020 |
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University workers ballot for action against in-person teaching
Bea Gardner, Southampton University and College Union (personal capacity)
University workers are escalating disputes over unsafe campus reopening plans as cases soar in university cities.
The University and College Union's (UCU) position is that all teaching should be online as the default until the 'five tests' are met, including a comprehensive plan of testing and a reduction in overall infection rates.
On 30 September, a higher education sector conference for the UCU voted overwhelmingly in favour of balloting for industrial action at institutions which continue to enforce in-person teaching.
Since the conference, UCU branches in Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick have all entered formal disputes over unsafe conditions and are preparing to ballot for strike action.
At Northumbria University, where over 770 students have tested positive for Covid-19, the decision of UCU members to ballot for industrial action was enough to push management to move all teaching online, having previously refused. Other branches which have entered into disputes have had a similar response, with online-only teaching now the default at all Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle universities.
However, while the move to online teaching is an important step forward to ensure the immediate health and safety of university staff and students, it is not a long-term solution. It also does not resolve the appalling situation of student accommodation outbreaks, where students are now trapped.
Up until now, campus trade unions have been systematically blocked from critical decision-making meetings regarding return plans. The escalated actions show that management can be forced to change their approach. Campus trade unions, in conjunction with students, must now organise for the necessary resources and democratic oversight to make universities safe.