Socialist Worker

Workers are stepping up the fight for safety at universities

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2727

Cases are soaring in many universities

Cases are soaring in many universities (Pic: public.tableau.com)


Higher education workers are organising to defend safety and jobs as coronavirus tears through universities.  

In Newcastle, UCU union members held a hundreds-strong meeting on Wednesday. One UCU member there told Socialist Worker, “It was the biggest meeting we’ve ever had. Some people are scared. Some people feel vulnerable and don’t feel they are being protected.”  

There were 749 positive cases reported among students at the university between 8 and 14 October, and 11 among staff. Yet workers fear they may be pushed back to face to face teaching at the end of the month.  

The branch has described an outbreak of coronavirus at the university as “entirely predictable and preventable”.  

It said the university had “refused to provide necessary information about the extent of the outbreak”. It also said bosses hadn’t carried out “appropriately detailed risk assessments”.  

The meeting voted to ballot for industrial action if their demands aren’t met by Monday.  

The union wants the university to confirm it will use an online teaching model until the end of this term at the earliest. It also wants more detail on which programmes the university thinks need to be taught in person, and arrangements for workplace inspections for these areas.  

Dispute

Birmingham UCU has declared a formal trade dispute with the University of Birmingham over on-campus teaching. It has called for the university to move all teaching online, except where that is not practically possible.  

A ballot for industrial action over the issue could follow.  

More than 600 positive cases were recorded at the university in the two weeks to 13 October. Yet the university has continued to downplay the crisis.  

“The number of new cases in the last seven days has remained stable at around 300,” it said. “This figure is significantly lower than in other universities of similar size.”  

David Bailey is president of the UCU at Birmingham university. “Our members are increasingly alarmed at the rapidly rising number of infections among students at the university,” he said.  

“The rate of infection now equates to over 1,000 cases per 100,000 students in just one week.  

“In a recent survey of our members, 82 percent agreed that the university’s current plans for returning to campus are unsafe and that UCU should oppose this.”  

David added that there is “widespread confusion” among workers and students over the handling of the virus. Some say they aren’t sure how to report a positive test result, or what to do if they have to self-isolate.  

“Staff have also raised concerns that they have been discouraged from isolating or moving classes online,” said David.  

No confidence

At Sheffield university, more than 300 UCU members met on Thursday and overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in the University Executive Board.  

The union branch said it was “the largest meeting we’ve held in years”. Workers also plan to have a joint meeting with the student union next week.  

A big UCU meeting at York university also backed a vote of no confidence in university management on the same day. And it voted overwhelmingly to consult members on industrial action.  

Workers are also fighting to defend jobs and stop bosses using the crisis to make more cuts.  

At Brighton university, UCU members took a step towards taking action over redundancies in a consultative ballot last week.  

Some 89 percent voted in favour of starting an industrial action ballot on a turnout of 65 percent. The university wants to make job cuts in the IT support department, with 49 people in the “at risk” category.  

Chair of Brighton university UCU Mark Abel said workers were “pleased” with the result.  

University virus chaos shows why we need resistance - join the day of action
University virus chaos shows why we need resistance - join the day of action
  Read More

“They want to cut IT when people are working from home and everyone’s more reliant on IT than ever,” he told Socialist Worker. “I speak to IT nearly every day to sort something out.”  

He added that there is growing anger over how the university is handling the virus.  

Mark said there is growing anger about how the university is handling the virus. “We know students who have tested positive had previously been in class,” he said.  

“But the university position is that there isn’t any risk as they’re sitting at least two metres apart. So we have a ‘Covid-secure’ campus.  

“Cases are shooting up at Brighton and at Sussex. Today’s figure for positive cases is 83—up from two in under two weeks.”  

The university’s formal position is that all students will receive some face to face teaching. But Mark said some workers are blocking this.  

“In my school, people just said we’re not doing it,” he said. “We’ve had no comeback.”  

Workers and students plan a day of action on Friday.


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