By Poppy Askham
Durham’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU) is set to vote on whether members would be willing to take industrial action following demands made in October regarding Covid-19 safety fears.
The October 26th motion’s primary demand is the suspension of all face-to-face teaching until it is deemed safe by scientific advisory bodies.
In practice, this means that if members vote in favour, staff could strike if Durham University’s senior management implement a compulsory return to in-person teaching prior to the date recommended by scientific advisory bodies including SAGE and Independent SAGE. The union may not take action if face-to-face teaching is reintroduced on an opt-in basis.
The consultative ballot, which closes at midnight on Friday 8th January, will ask members of the local branch whether they would support industrial action, including strike action or action short of a strike (ASOS).
The national UCU lists five types of strike action: working strictly to contract; not covering for absent colleagues; not rescheduling teaching hours cancelled due to strike action; not undertaking voluntary work for one’s university; and boycotting marking and assessment.
The vote comes after an open letter by staff to the Vice-Chancellor demanding an end to face-to-face teaching in October. The letter argued that the current preparations for in-person teaching are “dangerously inadequate” given the “intensity and speed of the second wave”.
Members of staff have expressed particular concern over the University’s policy of forcing staff to apply to their departments for exemptions from in-person teaching, which they argue places pressure on individual staff members. Durham UCU also warned of the negative impact of face-to-face teaching and heavy workloads on staff mental health and stress levels.
Durham University has recorded 1,888 Covid-19 cases as of 10th December, the sixth-highest number of infections in all UK higher education institutions to date, according to UCU data.
In an announcement today, the national UCU praised the government’s decision to move university learning online under the current lockdown measures. It also called for the government to “commit to keeping the majority of teaching online for the entire term to give staff and students a stable mode of delivery.”
The Union is currently awaiting the decision of its legal challenge against the government for allowing universities to resume face-to-face teaching against SAGE’s advice.
Durham UCU did not wish comment in advance of the vote.
Image: Tim Packer (February 2020)