As universities struggle to contain student parties, and with coronavirus outbreaks already confirmed at several campuses, many academics are afraid of face-to-face teaching. But some say managers are bullying them to return and, fearing redundancy, they feel unable to refuse.
In the past few days the universities of Glasgow and Liverpool have both announced significant Covid outbreaks, and other universities, including St Andrews, Edinburgh Napier, Bath, Oxford Brookes, Aberdeen and Stirling are grappling with confirmed cases.
Vicky Blake, president of the University and College Union (UCU), says: “Staff are getting in touch with me at their wits’ end. It’s a horrible thing to be told people are terrified.”
Universities insist the safety of staff, students and local residents is their priority. But the union says it is being deluged with pleas for help from staff on precarious contracts who feel unable to refuse to teach face-to-face, but are deeply fearful about the risks. “We are operating in the context of redundancy announcements. It makes it feel very difficult to put your head above the parapet,” Blake says.
One academic at a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named, said her university had dismissed her concerns about infecting her partner, who has type 1 diabetes and is therefore at an increased risk from coronavirus. “We live in a shared studio apartment with no room to quarantine,” she says. “I reported this, along with my own concerns about being BAME, but my head of department has told me I don’t understand the science and the classroom is the safest place to be.”
The academic says that “under pressure” she has been teaching students in a seminar room with no windows, but wearing a mask and changing and showering immediately afterwards. “I am on a casual teaching-only contract and it’s obvious if I refuse to do this I will risk damaging my career or losing my job,” she says.
Like many other academics in the arts and humanities, she believes she can teach her subject just as well online, and says she has attracted exciting external speakers to take part in digital seminars who probably would not participate in person.
At Northumbria University, an academic whose partner nearly died after they both contracted coronavirus in March has circulated an angry letter to colleagues, saying the pressure to come back on to campus “to deliver teaching that could be delivered online” was “shameful”. The letter describes the partner’s illness, including a week spent almost totally alone in intensive care, “in the hope that sharing this experience might bring home the gravity of what a second wave might cause”.
Dr Adam Hansen, senior lecturer in English at Northumbria and chair of its UCU branch, says universities’ risk assessments should take into account any clinically vulnerable people academics are living with or supporting. “Our view is that any assessment of what happens in a university at the moment should start with two questions: does this activity have to happen on campus, and does this individual have to do it?”
A spokesperson for the university says: “The health and safety of our staff and students is always our first priority. Where colleagues are working on campus we have taken mitigating actions in line with government guidance to make the working environment safe.”
In many universities, much of the in-person teaching will fall to younger members of staff on casual contracts. A young PhD student at the University of St Andrews, who does not want to be named in case it affects his career, says that in his department PhD students teach 82% of the first- and second-year seminars that will now be face-to-face. “We’ve basically been told, if you want one of these tutor groups the teaching will be in person,” he says. “For me there is a dignity issue here. No one is even asking if we are OK with this.”
He makes £81.75 a week (which includes holiday pay) teaching three undergraduate seminars, putting him below the £120 a week necessary to claim statutory sick pay if he contracts the virus. “Many PhD students like me won’t be entitled to sick pay if we get ill,” he says. “Long Covid is what really worries me. I’m at a precarious point in my career. I’m due to submit my PhD dissertation in a few months and I don’t have the time or the money to be ill for a long period.”
Moreover, he is not convinced that teaching face-to-face will work with the current safety restrictions. “I am being asked to run small group discussions in a big lecture theatre at a 2 metre distance with masks on and with some students watching simultaneously online. I’m at a loss as to how to lead an effective class like that. Will we even hear each other with masks on?”
A spokeswoman for St Andrews says: “We’ve heard and sympathise with [the] concerns and are bringing in an addition to current policy to ensure that flexible workers are covered for pay they might miss if they fall ill. PhD students also have access to our student support funds.”
As for concerns about the quality of teaching, the spokeswoman says: “We’ve been running in-person teaching on a limited basis for two weeks already, and the feedback from both staff and students so far has been exceptionally positive.”
At Cambridge University, the local UCU branch is concerned that with 45% of undergraduate tutorials or “supervisions” conducted by graduate students, postdoctoral students and freelancers, young casual workers will “be left to bear the costs of face-to-face teaching in a global pandemic”. It says most are far too worried about their careers to risk speaking out about safety.
A university spokesperson says: “We accept this is a worrying time. No member of staff will be compelled to attend face-to-face supervisions if they have concerns about their health and wellbeing.”
Those at the top of the profession aren’t necessarily finding it easy to refuse to teach either. One well-reputed professor at an elite university says he struggled to prove that he shouldn’t be teaching because of the danger of putting his elderly father at risk.
“My university has a policy that if you have medical evidence or you fit one of the high-risk categories you won’t have to teach. I’m knocking 60, but I don’t fit any of these categories. Yet I am in a bubble with my father in his mid-80s and I am the only person he sees.”
In the end, the professor went to see his doctor because of his anxieties about being forced to teach students in person and catching public transport to get to university. She wrote a letter saying he needed to be allowed to teach online, which the university accepted.
“The university headline is that no one will be compelled. But if you can’t produce hard evidence of your risk, I don’t know what you do,” he says. “This feels like a dishonest approach and I know some heads of school are bullying people into it. It’s only senior people like me who can say sod it and take them on, knowing they can’t promote you any further anyway.”
A spokesperson for the vice-chancellors’ group, Universities UK, said: “Universities should be considering the needs of staff and students on an individual basis. There is a careful balancing of the risk of any potential future national or local lockdowns and ensuring that young people – who have faced incredible disruption during the pandemic – can continue with their education.”
UUK has produced guidance for universities in ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of students, staff, visitors and the wider community.