Coronavirus: Pressure for university teaching to move online until Easter

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Online learning should be the “default position” at Scotland’s universities and colleges, student leaders have said as union calls grow for teaching to be delivered remotely until the Easter break.

Amid rising concern over the impact of a new, fast-spreading strain of Covid-19, NUS Scotland said many students wanted to study at home “for the rest of the semester” and stressed they had the legal right to end accommodation contracts early.

President Matt Crilly also warned that students were being expected to pay for term-time accommodation they cannot use and called on ministers to provide urgent financial support so individuals are not left “out of pocket”.

The University and College Union (UCU), meanwhile, has said that all teaching and learning should be provided online until the end of term to avoid a repeat of outbreaks which hit campuses last autumn.

Education Secretary John Swinney previously said students would go back to their institutions on a staggered basis after the Christmas break. However, it is expected that updated guidance will be issued soon.

 University students’ return risks new wave of infections

Mr Crilly said: “This year hasn’t been what students signed up for and many students now want to learn from home for the rest of the semester.

“Students have the right under Covid legislation to serve their notice and end their contract early.

“Reports of some accommodation providers not accepting notice to leave is worrying, especially given that most students are making huge sacrifices to keep others safe- they should not be punished financially for doing so. I’d encourage all providers and landlords to do the right thing and be flexible with students wherever possible.”

Mr Crilly said students needed “urgent clarity” about arrangements for the new term.

“NUS Scotland continues to call for online learning to be the default position where possible, that way no student has to be on campus unless absolutely necessary and every student can confidently hand in their notice on their student accommodation if they wish to do so,” he added.

“Students are being expected to pay rent for accommodation they can’t use. That is grossly unfair.

“We are seeking urgent financial support from the Scottish Government and universities to ensure no student is left out of pocket and that every university has a no-detriment policy in place, to ensure no student is academically disadvantaged.”

Mary Senior, UCU’s Scotland official, said: “University students and staff need urgent clarity that the First Minister’s ‘stay at home’ message applies to them too.  

“When schools across Scotland and the UK are closed as a very last resort due to the global pandemic, it is bizarre that current rules allow teaching and learning on campus, with students and staff travelling potentially across the UK to participate. 

 “The Scottish Government needs to do all it can to limit travelling and mixing of students and staff, and so must regrettably put all learning and student support online for the time being and for the whole of this term.

“We saw in September and October the significant outbreaks on campus when students and staff returned for the autumn term. 

“We cannot allow this to happen at this perilous stage of the pandemic.  

“Ministers must act quickly and decisively and limit the opportunities for universities to be vectors of this virus again.  UCU is calling for all learning and student support to be online now.”

 Move university teaching online ‘until end of term’

In a separate development, the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, has revealed some colleges plan to deliver face-face teaching next week, while others have confirmed that there will not be any until at least mid-February.

The union has raised safety concerns with the colleges as it does not believe that these colleges have carried out revised risk assessments for the new variant of Covid-19.

Furthermore, it believes that the determination to teach goes beyond Scottish Government guidance issued on January 4, and has said the decision to implement face-to-face teaching next week, with the Government committed to reviewing guidance this week, seems premature and risky.

General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The EIS calls on all colleges and universities to suspend all face-to-face teaching during this national lockdown and rely on online teaching and learning.

“There is no reason for lecturers to attend their workplaces; they are not designated as key workers and they should be working from home as per the government’s advice.

“We will consider all options in order to safeguard the health and safety of our members.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Minister for Further and Higher Education wrote to all principals this week to emphasise any education that can be done online during this period of tighter restrictions must be done online, and that numbers attending college should be kept at the absolute essential minimum.

“We are looking very urgently this week, working with colleges, universities, unions and student representatives, as to whether any further changes are required to arrangements for the start of term.”

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