Universities urged to ‘raise their game’ by allowing staff to teach remotely

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Universities have been urged to allow clinically vulnerable staff to work remotely and to provide all staff with higher-quality face masks.

The University and College Union (UCU) said on Wednesday that employers must “raise their game” and allow staff who need to work remotely “due to increased risk factors, isolation or caring responsibilities” to do so through reducing the numbers of people required on site.

The union has said it wants employers to “implement better quality face masks” in updated guidance to its representatives, and has called for indoor spaces to be monitored to ensure they are well-ventilated, with air filtration units used where necessary.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “College and university campuses are reopening this month whilst Omicron is surging throughout the UK and it is clear employers need to raise their game to ensure staff and students are kept safe and education is not disrupted.”

She added that the measures proposed by UCU were designed to reduce the risks of mass Covid outbreaks and ensure “high-quality education for students” could continue while protecting the vulnerable.

“Employers need to make sure that high quality face masks, which are scientifically proven to reduce transmission, are freely available for staff and students who are required on campus and ensure all indoor spaces have good levels of ventilation,” she added.

The union has also called for staff who are self-isolating or have caring responsibilities for others who are isolating to be able to access sick pay.

Last week, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that there were “no excuses” for universities not to deliver face-to-face teaching despite a surge in Covid cases and staff absences.

Mr Zahawi added that students who felt “they are not getting value for money” should complain to the Office for Students.

“They are doing it in primary and secondary schools and in colleges. I expect universities to do the same thing, otherwise explain why not. There are no excuses, we are all in this together,” he said.

Raj Jethwa, UCEA chief executive said: “Throughout the pandemic, autonomous HE institutions have worked tirelessly alongside the students and staff they protect while providing the best possible learning experience.

“UCEA and trade union representatives worked together to provide joint principles for the sector on the safe return to campus. These principles recognised the need for cooperation between unions and HE institutions.”

He added that the principles included a commitment from autonomous universities to consult unions on risk assessment. 

“Although there is no evidence of transmission in HE teaching settings, we have always encouraged unions to engage constructively with HE institutions to ensure a safe working environment,” he added.

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