Say no to onsite teaching: Being the university in a time of crisis

The news tonight that the government is to ban social gatherings of more than six people should be a turning point in the discussion over universities teaching face-to-face (F2F) on campus. Large gatherings, the government says, are the greatest risk of spread. By magic, apparently, such risks don’t apply to workplaces, places of education or organised sports, but hey – this is the government that declared formally in its own law-making body that it intends to break international law, don’t expect reason from these people (there’s a litany of other examples of course, but let’s just go with the most recent).

Universities however are still parroting that they are ‘following government guidance’. I can say with real bitterness that that approach cost lives and people’s health in March. I know of a number of staff, both academics and professional services, and students across British HE, who either died or developed Long COVID as a consequence (and a reminder – my DMs are open. If there’s a story you want told, I can tell it if you need me to). As I have said many times before, in a sector which valorises ‘leadership’, its leaders all-too-often look merely like highly-paid and honoured ciphers for government decision-making.

As I said in yesterday’s blog, the union’s position – that we shouldn’t be teaching face-to-face – is the correct one. The chaos in the United States, where often-better-resourced institutions than their peers in the UK are struggling to cope with mass outbreaks of coronavirus, and where local mayors are furious about the dangers to their communities, is what is in store for us. As others have stated, we need to get past the British exceptionalism bullshit that got us in such trouble in March. The second wave is coming to us too, and our universities are no more magically virus-proof than American ones. And unlike some US universities, British universities aren’t by and large going to be testing all staff and students twice a week. There isn’t, except in those few institutions which have elected to go online, a serious and credible plan.

Because in truth there isn’t one available in a pandemic – other than to go online.

Outbreaks across the US are associated with the reopening of college campuses. And at the weekend in Exeter, over 300 students attended a number of parties. This isn’t to have a go at students. They’ve been sold a pup by government and by management, a ‘meaningful experience’ beyond the classroom. They’ve inferred from that that they are going to uni in the way that I did. But they can’t. That’s brutal, but it’s true. But it’s on management, and government, to make that clear.

Instead, the government’s approach – as ever – is to demonise the young, when the ultimate culpability lies in their determination to play stupid culture war games with universities by refusing to underwrite them and instead threatening them with restructure if they go under.

Take direct action: Say no to onsite teaching

Once Upon A Time, in a land called the British University, the autonomy of institutions and the freedom of staff within them to direct their affairs was allegedly sacrosanct (it was never really true, but it was truer in the past than it is now). What was once considered a core preserve of academic freedom – what and how to teach – has now become a life-or-death issue. It’s also an issue that (in the case of onsite or offsite teaching) academic and academic-related staff below senior managerial level have very little say in.

What was once a question of professional judgement then becomes an issue of direct action. And so that is the point of this blog. I am a programme leader, a humble admin role holder in a large university. It’s not formally up to me whether we teach onsite or we don’t. That much has been made clear. But on Monday colleagues (and comrades) at Newcastle University’s English Department showed the way – they just said no.

Inspired by them, that’s what I urge us all to do, particularly those of us who are middle managers and admin role holders. Say no. Say it loud, say it any fora you can. Refuse. I will later today. I am a scholar, I have some sort of commitment to evidence. The evidence all points one way, and no amount of slogans or appeals to the authority of individuals or the state will convince me otherwise. More than this, it’s a moral issue. I’m not going back in – I’m in a vulnerable category – but none of my team should either.

If one or two of us do this, we’ll be shot at dawn metaphorically speaking and the show will go on. If department after department, professional services team after professional services team, says no – we will all have switched over to online by Friday.

Students will be disappointed, let’s not kid ourselves. But that is on managers and ministers who refused to face up to the truth and instead tried to bullshit a virus.

The real leadership in higher education workforces comes from the workers themselves, as it should. We have more power than we realise. Stand by your colleagues, stand up for yourselves, say no to onsite teaching, and say it loud.

We are the university, and in doing this – in fighting for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students – we can be a much better university than our ‘leaders’, in Whitehall or the Vice-Chancellor’s office, could ever begin to imagine.

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