UCU criticises Durham’s “destructive” online-only degree proposal

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The University and Colleges Union (UCU) has said Durham University “must halt” its plans to move significant amounts of teaching online, calling them “destructive” and “an attack on staff”.

The proposals, exclusively reported by Palatinate on Wednesday (15th), would see the number of “live” modules with face-to-face teaching drop by 25%, with the aim of providing at least 500 modules fully online by the end of the 2020/21 academic year.

Authored by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Antony Long and Vice-Provost (Education) Alan Houston, the plans aim to “invert Durham’s traditional education model” by placing “online resources at the core enabling us to provide education at a distance.”

In a statement on Thursday, the UCU wrote that “universities should not see the global pandemic as an opportunity to try and drastically alter their different business models, and that Durham had to consult properly with staff and students over any changes.”

The UCU added that the plans “looked like an attack on staff who had worked tirelessly and shown enormous goodwill to deliver during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Further details of the proposals, as reported by Palatinate, can be read here.

“Durham needs to halt these plans.”

Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary

Jo Grady, the national UCU General Secretary, said: “This looks like an attack on the livelihoods and the professional expertise of hard-working staff – all to line the pockets of private providers who don’t have the same track record of providing high standards of education. 

Grady continued: “Durham needs to halt these plans. The fact there has been no consultation with staff or students is unacceptable and we will continue to defend the quality of education staff provide and our members’ jobs.

“Changes to our higher education system should be led by staff from the ground up, whether they are necessitated by Covid-19 or not.

“We will do everything we can to challenge this and any other similarly destructive proposals.”

Speaking to Palatinate, the Durham UCU branch confirmed that they had held a virtual Emergency General Meeting on Wednesday afternoon, attended by over 180 members, which had “voted to firmly oppose rushed long-term changes taken without proper consultation.”

Over 300 Durham academic staff have also signed a letter to Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge, labelling the proposals “highly concerning, […] cynical and reckless.”

“highly concerning, […] cynical and reckless”

A letter to Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge from over 300 academic staff

Meanwhile, Vicky Blake, President-Elect of the UCU, also expressed her frustration in a lengthy Twitter feed.

Blake tweeted: “Major concerns at Durham! Rushed plan (no consultation with UCU/students!) to radically change teaching beyond Covid19: 25% reduction of modules, outsourcing, online learning without due regard to pedagogical objectives…

“Serious kudos to members on the ground + @ucuatdurham [Durham University’s UCU branch] for moving rapidly to challenge this.”

Blake also argued that “poorly justified financial ‘decision-making’ is a significant factor in this mess,” adding that “Durham University took out a £225m 46-year bond in 2018 to fund *expansion* based on increasing international student recruitment… now Covid19 threatens these plans.

“The kind of borrowing in the background of Durham’s woes was not a clever or imaginative solution to these problems… nor is this slapdash proposal.

“Major concerns at Durham!”

Vicky Blake, UCU President-Elect

“A sensible answer surely cannot be ‘plough ahead with short termist [sic] thinking, treat students as commodities + staff as interchangeable resource who can be piled under increasing pressure + intensify the resultant mess with further panicked decisions without proper consultation’.”

In a statement to Palatinate, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Antony Long, who co-authored the proposals, said: “We recognise the tremendous support provided by many academic staff to help keep our educational offer as strong as possible during these difficult times, and out student body for the steps that they are also taking to help us move forward as an academic community.”

Image: Alarichall via Wikimedia Commons

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