Newcastle University staff won't be forced into in-person teaching as COVID deal struck

The Arches at Newcastle University in Newcastle Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/PA Images

Newcastle University staff will not be forced back into working on campus, even if COVID-19 cases continue to fall.

The university and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have struck a deal under which academics will only conduct in-person teaching on a voluntary basis.

However, the university confirmed that when in-person teaching sessions are being held students will be told to attend "unless they are self-isolating or are unable and then they will be supported to study remotely".

It is understood that the agreement covers the rest of this term and the university added that it hopes to resume more teaching on campus before the end of 2020.

Following a major outbreak of coronavirus cases at the university, almost all teaching is currently being done online - aside from where it is essential to come onto campus for certain courses.

Newcastle's UCU branch had accused the university of a "lack of leadership and lack of responsibility", with members threatening industrial action if concerns over Covid safety measures were not addressed.

Latest figures issued by the university now show that the number of new coronavirus cases among students is falling substantially - 237 in the past week, compared to previous weekly figures of 749 and 1,003 this month.

But in a joint statement issued on Thursday by the union and the university, it was confirmed that online learning will now remain the default even if the situation keeps improving and the university is able to step back down from Tier 3 to Tier 2 of the Department for Education's Covid guidelines.

They said: "If the prevalence of infection and numbers self-isolating continues to fall in our students and the community more generally, we hope, in consultation with the Newcastle City Council Director of Public Health, to agree a move back to Tier 2 before the end of the calendar year.

"In that case, the approach to teaching will be the same as described for Tier 3 with the addition of those present-in-person (PIP) activities considered to be most beneficial to students in terms of supporting their transition, developing a learning community, engendering engagement with their programme of study and/or helping support their mental health and wellbeing. The precise nature of beneficial activities will be determined at School/Unit level in discussion with student course reps.

"Colleague participation in these activities will be on a voluntary basis. We will continue to provide the opportunity for those colleagues who wish to attend campus to do so. Otherwise, colleagues (Academic and Professional Services) will only need to attend campus where this is an essential part of their role or where this forms part of delivering essential education and research activity.

"Colleagues from across the University have been working tirelessly to ensure our campus and teaching spaces are as Covid-safe as possible and over the next 10 weeks we will all be working to keep the campus open for safe, physically distanced study and research.

"These additional measures will allow our colleagues to focus on providing our students with an excellent education during a global pandemic, and to give our degree programmes the greatest possible resilience during this time of great change and crisis."

Dr David Stewart, chair of the Newcastle UCU branch, added that the union was "delighted that we can now focus on delivering the best and safest possible education for our students".

However, it is understood that negotiations continue between the UCU and university over an agreement on how to conduct appropriate Covid risk assessments for campus buildings. 

The UCU branch held an extraordinary meeting last week at which members agreed to declare a formal failure to agree with the university that the campus was Covid safe and, if concerns were not resolved, to begin the process of balloting for industrial action, including the option of both an indefinite strike and action short of a strike.


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