We need to act: support industrial action for the safety of students, staff, and the local community

By concerned members of Durham UCU

This week, Durham UCU is holding a consultative ballot on taking industrial action regarding senior management’s failure to meet the demands overwhelmingly supported by members at our October general meeting. We, a group of DUCU members, write to urge other staff and PGRs [postgraduate research students] to vote ‘Yes,’ because we believe senior management has proven irresponsible in its 2020-21 COVID response.

Until the new national lockdown took matters out of their hands, they looked set to make in-person seminar-teaching the default option again for Epiphany term, rather than providing an online-only option for staff as for students. The policy of forcing staff to apply to their departments for exemptions from in-person teaching places pressure on staff—particularly those at an early career stage or those who are precariously employed—to teach in-person.

As a union we owe it to students, staff, and the local community to exercise our democratic power to act. A live mandate for industrial action is a powerful bargaining tool for UCU branches, as recently demonstrated at other universities such as Northumbria. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Durham was one of the first UK universities to implement a strong health and safety response, moving online and averting an outbreak here at that point. However, the decision to bring students to Durham for in-person teaching in Michaelmas term was a mistake.

It resulted in 2,000 students (8% of the university community) testing positive during Michaelmas term, and the city becoming a nationwide hotspot. This failure was predictable. It mirrored what had happened at the universities up the road in Newcastle a few weeks before, and in the US months earlier.

“We must use all our democratic power to prevent the same mistakes being repeated at the end of this lockdown.”

A month before Michaelmas term started, SAGE had also predicted these problems and urged minimising in-person teaching and carefully managing university accommodations. Durham senior management joined the Government in failing to heed these warnings. On a national level, UCU is taking legal action against the Government over its failure to follow scientific advice.

We are currently in a national lockdown and all teaching will presumably be almost entirely online for the coming weeks. However, we must use all our democratic power to prevent the same mistakes being repeated at the end of this lockdown.

Another major outbreak would have serious implications for student welfare and staff working conditions, placing thousands more at risk of Long COVID, hospitalisation or death. DUCU’s position since October has been for an opt-in-only system for face-to-face teaching. This is in line with the positions of the UCU national leadership and the National Union of Students.

Not only has this demand not been met, but at the end of last term, university policies and communications seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, seeking to increase in-person teaching in Epiphany.

Many measures proposed by the university to make classrooms and the campus COVID-secure are questionable, as October’s outbreak demonstrated. Lateral flow testing (LFT), a new measure, has been proven to offer extremely unreliable information. 

Throughout 2020, teaching staff have worked diligently to provide high-quality online teaching. We believe online teaching is qualitatively superior to masked, socially-distanced, shared-air classes. UCU’s minimum demand is only for staff to have the same right as students: a genuine, universal option for online-only teaching.

We believe most staff and students will accept that this demand is reasonable. We don’t have time for more delays and more waiting for senior management or the government to do the right thing. We need to act now. Staff and PGR students who are part of UCU, please vote ‘Yes’ in the consultative ballot that closes this Friday.

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