Essex UCU respond to Susie Morgan, Director of People and Culture-following her open reply: https://www.essex.ac.uk/blog/staff/posts/2020/10/22/response-to-ucu-open-letter
following Essex UCU open letter to VC on 19 Oct 2020.
Many thanks for your swift response, on behalf of the Vice-Chancellor, to our open letter of 19th October.
In our letter, we urged the Vice-Chancellor to i) move all student-facing work online by default, ii) publicly correct inaccurate messaging surrounding the University’s Covid-19 antibody tests and iii) allow students in university accommodation to return home in a safe and managed way, providing rent fee rebates for those who chose to do so. Your reply does not, in our view, signal any change of University policy in response to these demands, but rather argues that i) and ii) are unnecessary and that iii) is already in place. As the University has not changed its policy, our serious concerns about the safety of staff, students and the local community remain.
Since the publication of our letter, UCU has launched a legal challenge against the Westminster government over its decision to ignore SAGE advice that universities operate online by default. In line with UCU’s national campaign, we call on senior management within the University of Essex to reconsider the University’s approach to student-facing work. While we welcome the decision to halt the arrival of undergraduate students on campus as planned via phase 2, we are nevertheless concerned by the recent decision to invite just under 1,500 taught postgraduate students to UoE’s campus by 9 November. The rest of this letter is a brief point-by-point response to the claims made in your reply to our 19/10 open letter.
- i) Online by default
On the first point (the call to make student-facing work online by default), your letter states that ‘[e]vidence suggests that our campuses are COVID secure environments.’ However, the only ‘evidence’ that is offered for this in the letter is a further claim that ‘the number of current positive COVID-19 cases on our University of Essex campuses, as of 20th October, is 6 [this dashboard figure has since been updated to 9].’ This low figure is held to include those who have tested positive through the NHS’s testing system as well as those that have been detected through the University’s antibody tests (with a positive PCR swab test confirming the result). We respectfully submit that this figure is highly likely to be an underestimate. The current rate of infection in England is one in 130, and rising. The latest estimates for infection rates among young people (Year 12 to age 25) – the bracket in which most of our students belong – suggest that more than 2% in this age range are infected. In this context, the University’s reported figures are questionable as an accurate record of infected members. Rather than being indicative of exceptional ‘Covid security’ at the University of Essex, we fear that the count is inaccurate as a result of several factors, chiefly: first, the University’s aberrant use of antibody tests for detecting Covid infections leading to a large proportion of false negatives (a point to which we return below); second, a low rate of reporting of positive NHS tests to the University; third, an ineffective track and trace system nationally.
Therefore, we continue to contest the claim that the University’s campuses are ‘Covid secure’, and we continue to urge the Vice-Chancellor to move all student-facing work online by default in order to protect the health of staff, students and the wider community. ‘By default’ in this context means that remote working will be the expectation except where a role can only be performed on campus (as in some practical work) or where a staff member specifically requests to opt in to on-campus work. UCU Essex has heard from staff members who report feeling pressured into working on campus against their wishes. In addition, the current results of a UCU survey indicate that just over a third of staff members currently working on campus at the University of Essex are unhappy with this arrangement. In light of this, UCU Essex continues to believe that the current procedure whereby staff must request remote working from their line manager or from you as Director of People and Culture – a time-consuming and potentially intimidating process with an uncertain outcome – provides inadequate protection for staff, especially those who are junior or precariously employed.
- ii) Antibody testing
The scientific evidence is clear that antibody tests are not appropriate for detecting ‘live’ Covid-19 infections. By attempting to use them for Covid screening purposes, the University is employing an ineffective approach which further risks producing a false sense of reassurance among staff and students. In your reply, you point to the availability of ‘rapid antigen swab tests or a PCR test where needed.’ We support the use of antigen tests, which are capable of detecting Covid-19 infection directly and with a much higher degree of accuracy than antibody tests can supply, and welcome the University’s efforts to secure these in more adequate numbers. However, our understanding is that antigen tests are currently only being used at Essex to confirm Covid infection following a positive result for short-term antibodies. Since antibodies typically take around a week to develop, our concern remains that this method is likely to detect only a small proportion of infections. In this context, the statement by Bryn Morris (on the web page linked to in your letter) that ‘[o]ur testing will allow us to identify any cases at the earliest possible moment’ strikes us as particularly misleading.
We continue to be concerned that the nature of the testing offered by the University and the meaning of a ‘negative’ antibody test result have not been sufficiently clearly communicated. The University may dispute this, but what disadvantage is there in acceding to our request and issuing a further, clear communication to staff and students?
iii) Rent rebates for students
Finally, in response to our call for rent rebates for students choosing to leave their accommodation early, you suggested that ‘the action you request has been in place for some time at Essex’, as ‘our accommodation policy was designed to be flexible… for students who wish to be released from accommodation agreements. This included… offering rent rebates to students who have paid their rent and decided to leave; and allowing contract breaks if students wish to move out of their accommodation for a short period but do not want to end their contract’. We are delighted that the University has such measures in place, and would ask that the information about accommodation on the University website is updated to reflect this as, at the present time, it states that students will be released from their tenancy or rental payments will be paused only if students are ‘required by their government, the UK government or the University to leave their University accommodation’, as opposed to leaving by their own choice.
We welcome the offer to discuss the content of a joint statement by the University and UCU Essex, calling on the government to provide the funds to cover any loss of rental income. We will be in touch separately in relation to this, and hope that we may move ahead with this even in the absence of agreement on the other points outlined above.
We will now consider our next steps, which will include declaring ourselves in official dispute with the University of Essex.