Open letter from teaching staff to University calls for an end to in-person teaching

Strike action will be discussed at an Emergency General Meeting of the Union on Monday

Teaching staff from across Durham University have come together in an open letter addressed to Vice-Chancellor Corbridge calling for all “non-essential face-to-face teaching” to cease immediately as “lives and health are at stake”.

The letter follows on from a University announcement last week that there have been more than 1,200 positive cases of coronavirus amongst students since the start of term.

The writers of the letter feel health and safety provisions made by the University are now inadequate given the “intensity and speed of the second wave”. Furthermore, the point is made that anyone can be seriously affected by the virus regardless of their health conditions, which they say renders the current policy of face-to-face opt-outs insufficient.

The teaching staff concerned are asking that face-to-face teaching be put on hold until “reliable scientific advice” from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies proves that in-person teaching is safe. The letter goes on to note SAGE advice from September that “all university and college teaching [should move] online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”. Teaching that is suggested to be “essential” consists of “laboratory, hands-on and site-specific work”.

A key point in the letter is the successes of Manchester University moving all non-essential face-to-face teaching online. Manchester saw a “reported increase [in coronavirus cases] of +1.05 per cent over the week of the seventh to the 14th of October” while Durham saw an increase of +4 per cent. Durham now has the fifth most positive cases in any UK university, which relative to size, makes it the second worst-affected university.

The open letter also claims that the current university stance on face-to-face teaching “contradicts official scientific advice, union policy, and governmental preventive measures” such as the Rule of Six and the ban on meeting indoors with people from different households.

Durham students have been worried by rumours of possible UCU strikes should the universities not change their policies on face-to-face teaching, as it is said that “further UCU and DUCU actions are now underway [with] formal disputes already [being] declared at other UCU branches”.

The Tab Durham spoke to one of the academic staff behind the letter, who stressed that their reasons to stop in-person were to protect students, academic staff and all their families. They accused the University of not being transparent about its intentions for continuing face-to-face teaching.

They alleged the University had a financial motive for not taking any action to stop in-person teaching – despite the exponential rise in Durham Covid cases – and was waiting until the tuition fee rebate deadline to pass so that it could benefit economically from a public health crisis.

The member of staff speaking to The Tab Durham alleged students had been deliberately misled by Durham University for its own financial gain, and the plans for a blended learning style were labelled “chaotic” and “unrealistic”. It was claimed the University was only giving the appearance of due diligence by hiding behind hygiene performance guidelines – namely the use of screens, face masks and hand sanitiser. With reports of Teaching Assistants in Classics seminars potentially catching Covid from face-to-face learning, they feel protective measures taken by the University to be insufficient.

The academics also report that circa half the students meant to be attending face-to-face teaching are self-isolating, meaning that the in-person teaching is rarely able to take place. Furthermore, they claim students living-in at St Mary’s and Collingwood colleges – who were all meant to be under a college-wide lockdown – were permitted and encouraged to leave college premises solely for attending in-person teaching.

The member of academic staff also alleged the University is not carrying out its own contact tracing, implying it is too great an administrative burden. However, they say some departments such as MLAC are opting to do their own on top of other departmental admin work – without any support from the University.

In a statement on the University website, the Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge has said:

“Throughout the past seven months, we have been proactively managing the effects of the pandemic on our University activities, informed by guidance from the UK government and professional bodies, and working closely with national and local partners. We are committed to a blended approach to our teaching and learning and wider student experience activities and our priority is, as always, the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff, students and community.

The delivery of face-to-face teaching for our students is a key matter that the University Executive keeps under review. At present our view is that we should continue with our current plans for face-to-face teaching, as well as with student-facing activities undertaken by our professional services staff.

In re-affirming this policy, we took considered account of discussion at Senate (the University’s governing body in all academic matters) last week, as well as advice received from public health experts at Durham County Council. Our current arrangements to address individual circumstances will remain in place, which includes an entirely online offer, which has been taken up by around 2,000 students this term.

We understand that this is a time of anxiety for our staff and student members, as it is across the UK and around the world. At the same time, we have taken all reasonable steps to provide for Covid-19-safety on campus, working helpfully with the recognised campus Trade Unions and the Students’ Union, and by taking on board many of their suggestions.

We remain committed to reviewing our policy on face-to-face teaching and all our other activities on a very regular basis, as new evidence presents itself and as we listen to our community. We will continue to communicate frequently with our staff, students and our wider community.”

There will be an Emergency General Meeting of the Union next Monday to determine whether there will be strike action.