The Durham branch of the UCU (University and College Union) has proposed and is currently voting on strike action against face-to-face teaching during Epiphany Term. DUCU members have expressed their discontent that they are being asked to deliver face-to-face teaching in spite of the Covid-19 crisis.
Despite the developments of recent days that have put a certain end to face-to-face teaching until mid-February at the very earliest, members of the DUCU should consider very carefully the consequences of potential strike action, and should not stand for it. Alternatives to strike action must be considered should these concerns arise again following the end of the lockdown.
For the sake of students, strike action simply cannot be justified. Students must not be made to suffer any more than they already have, with their university experience marred by unprecedented difficulties. Promises of blended learning convinced freshers to begin their university education in the midst of a global pandemic; those few hours of promised, face-to-face contact were the deciding factor for many students that were unsure about whether to start university under incredibly uncertain circumstances. In a year where motivation is at an all-time low, and options of face-to-face social contact with people outside of student households are already severely limited, the DUCU simply cannot be justified in attempting to have this small semblance of a normal university experience robbed from students.
Whilst the concerns of staff should of course be acknowledged and the university must do everything in their power to address them, the proposed industrial action simply cannot be supported – it would be detrimental to students’ education far beyond just ending face-to-face teaching. Proposals such as a boycotting of marking and assessment are frankly disgraceful when there is consensus amongst students that they are receiving an education that is not of the quality that they would have expected from Durham. The DUCU’s insistence that online teaching is in any way a better alternative to face-to-face teaching is highly questionable.
It is vital to point out that there are very dependable safety measures already in place to protect everyone in live teaching settings. Any student who has been lucky enough to experience face-to-face teaching during Michaelmas term will report that seminars take place in large, well-ventilated lecture theatres, with students spaced out at a minimum two metre distance, and staff often even further away and behind a protective screen. Students on practical science courses attest to socially distanced sessions where lab coats are labelled and placed in plastic bags so that they are strictly for use by one person only, whilst students on computing courses will report that they have to stand away from computers when asking for help from staff.
Whilst it is of course understandable that staff are anxious, having experienced situations where numerous members of seminar classes have been forced to self-isolate, the settings in which staff are being asked to teach are designed to remain safe under all circumstances. Even if a student in a seminar group was infected, the scientific understanding is that the measures in place will still protect staff and other students. There is no evidence that the outbreaks early on in Michaelmas term were linked to face-to-face teaching, and students will testify that most face-to-face teaching was in any case moved temporarily online under these particular circumstances.
The wider effects of the proposed strike action must also be fully appreciated. If face-to-face teaching is cancelled when it does not need to be, a considerable number of students may decide to return home to their families, having this final sense of a normal degree programme ripped away from them. This would be to the detriment of local businesses, already struggling in these unprecedented circumstances. Staff employed in the buildings usually used to deliver face-to-face teaching would also no longer have work. Face-to-face teaching is an integral part of the workings of the university and the local community, and any decision to take industrial action must therefore have very good justification.
From a student perspective, it seems impossible to find this justification. The University must indeed be urged to work with staff to address their concerns and should create the avenues necessary for staff to directly report any concerns to a figure of authority. However, strike action is not the right way forward. The justification provided by the DUCU is highly contentious, and the education of students must remain a constant priority. Online teaching is not of the same standard as face-to-face teaching, and whilst it is necessary this year, it should not be seen as a substitute.
Image: Mark Norton.