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Indicative ballot closed: over legal threshold turnout 8 Jan 2021

Fri 8 Jan 2021

The Essex UCU indicative ballot has now closed. We are pleased to confirm that 52% of members participated in the ballot (which is above the legal threshold for an industrial action ballot). Members overwhelmingly voted to say that they would be willing to participate in strike action (71.5%) and action short of strike (83.5%) if the University proceeds with their plan for blended learning including face to face teaching once the national lockdown ends.

 

We want to thank you all for taking part in this ballot. The fact that so many of you voted despite the ballot falling over the Christmas closure shows the strength of feeling of members at the University. We will be meeting with management next week to discuss our dispute over the plans for blended learning once the lockdown is lifted. We will inform management of the outcome of the ballot during those discussions. We hope that they will acknowledge the widespread and valid concerns of staff and agree to amend their proposals to make it clear that where possible all student facing work should continue to be undertaken online but with exceptions for work that cannot be carried out online and for staff who freely choose to opt in to work on campus once that is permitted by the government. We will keep you updated on the progress of these discussions and on the next steps.

 

Best wishes,

Irene McMullin

UCU Branch President, Essex

 

Indicative e-ballot is open: look for email from yoursay@ucu.org.uk

Indicative e-ballot is open

In response to the University’s Spring Term 2021 approved plan, which requires face-to-face and blended learning in all degree programmes, a motion was passed at our Essex UCU branch EGM on 16 December calling for:

 

  • UCU to declare an official dispute with the University and seek urgent meetings with management with the aim of resolution;
  • an indicative ballot on industrial action;
  • consideration of the outcome of the indicative ballot and the viability of running a formal ballot for industrial action.

All eligible Essex UCU members (ie not retired nor student members) will have received an email at approximately 5pm on Thurs 17 Dec with the indicative ballot (there is a unique voting link at the bottom of this email) This email is entitled ‘University of Essex UCU indicative ballot’ and was sent from: Research Survey ‘yoursay@ucu.org.uk’.

This email went to the email address that you have registered with UCU. To check your membership file to know which email address this is go to www.ucu.org.uk/myucu

To contact the branch if you cannot find this email or have any ballot related enquiries e: ballot@ucumail.essex.ac.uk however please note that due to staff leave over the holiday, you may not get a response until Tues 5 Jan. If you have another urgent branch enquiry either email our caseteam on casework@ucumail.essex.ac.uk or the branch officers on ucu@essex.ac.uk

The branch committee urge you to vote today. Closing date is 8 Jan, however we are doing lots of work to contact members to ensure that everyone votes, so you will be helping us by voting early. We need to ensure that the turnout in this indicatove ballot is high. If we proceed to a formal vote, we will need a 50%+ turnout under the TU Act 2016

Branch indicative ballot opens today Thurs 17 Dec 2020

On 10 December 2020 the University Council endorsed a management proposal that blended learning including face-to-face teaching be offered to students in all degree programmes effective from the week commencing 1 February 2021. This action was taken without consultation with the recognised trade unions and management have not confirmed whether staff who refuse to work on campus will face disciplinary procedures.

At an extraordinary UCU branch meeting on Wednesday 16 December 2020 a motion was passed instructing the branch committee to enter into a formal dispute with the University regarding these plans and calling on the University to move to online learning (except for practical work) for the Spring and Summer Term 2021, allowing staff to opt-in to work on campus (where and when it is safe to do so). A copy of this motion is below.

Indicative ballot
The motion also calls on the branch committee to hold an indicative ballot of members on the willingness to vote for and take industrial action if this proves necessary. This ballo opened today and emails have gone to all eligible members.

The branch committee strongly encourages you to VOTE YES to both of the ballot questions. This will allow the committee to consider all options to protect the health and safety of staff and students.
Although we are running this indicative ballot via email, any formal ballot for industrial action will need to be a postal ballot. It is therefore vital that you check and update your membership details via www.ucu.org.uk/myucu in readiness.

Any ballot queries should be sent to ballot@ucumail.essex.ac.uk

Motion

On Blended Learning and Face-to-Face Provision at UoE in 2021

Proposed by: Jak Peake.

Seconded by: David Rush.

This Branch notes that:

  1. University of Essex (UoE) management has not agreed to online student-facing work and teaching as a default option despite calls for this from SAGE, Independent SAGE and UCU nationally and locally;

 

  1. UoE management has proposed that blended learning – including face-to-face teaching – be offered to students in all degree programmes effective from the week commencing 1 February 2021;

 

  1. UoE management has not confirmed whether increased risk, clinically non-vulnerable and non-shielding staff who refuse to work on campus will face disciplinary procedures;

 

  1. UoE have taken this action without consulting the trades unions.

This Branch believes that:

  1. UoE management’s current plans for the Spring Term pose a risk to the health of staff and are likely to pose uneven pressures in different departments, schools and sections; as a consequence, real equality and fairness at UoE is under threat;

 

  1. Staff ought not to be pressured into modes of work that risk their health or the health of their families or their local communities;

 

  1. January through to March will be, in the words of England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, “the highest risk period” and that, despite the arrival of a vaccine, for “the next three months we will not have sufficient protection”;

 

  1. By abandoning the cautious approach adopted in the Autumn Term, management’s current plans will be running the risk of increasing Covid-19 infection rates significantly;

 

  1. Consequently, decisive action is needed at UoE to stem the spread of Covid-19 and to safeguard staff, students, their families and the wider community;

 

  1. UoE should move to online learning (except for practical work) for the Spring and Summer Term 2021, allowing staff to opt-in to work on campus (where and when it is safe to do so).

This Branch therefore resolves:

  1. For the University of Essex branch committee to write to management informing them of the branch’s concerns regarding its proposals and to enter into a formal dispute with the University on this issue and to call for urgent meetings to resolve this matter.

 

  1. To hold an indicative ballot of members calling for industrial action in some form over UoE management’s plans for the Spring Term 2021.

 

  1. That the University of Essex branch committee will consider the outcome of this indicative ballot and consider the viability of running a formal ballot for industrial action.

Essex UCU seek assurance that all work that can be will be done remotely by default in 2021 (3/12/2020)

The following statement was sent to UoE USG from Essex UCU

On 30 October 2020, Essex UCU was mandated by members to declare an official dispute following an inadequate response to our requests (outlined in our open letter of 19 October) to move all student-facing work online by default, publicly correct inaccurate messaging surrounding the University’s Covid-19 antibody tests, and 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. Shortly after we obtained this mandate, the UK government announced a further ‘lockdown’, and the University of Essex moved teaching and some other student-facing work online by default for the remainder of the autumn term.

Essex UCU welcomes the University’s initiative in acting to protect the wellbeing of staff and students despite the lack of a clear steer from the UK government. In addition, we are heartened by the recent introduction of antigen tests, having previously raised our grave concerns about the University’s earlier reliance on antibody tests for Covid screening purposes. In light of these changes of circumstances, Essex UCU branch has not declared a dispute.

However, we are conscious that the next term is less than two months away, and that the University may revert in the spring term to requiring staff to engage in face-to-face work where such work can be done remotely. We are therefore seeking an assurance that this will not happen and hope that the decision made by USG on 8 December will be in line with our call at Essex UCU. Specifically:

We seek assurance that the current status quo will be carried over at least to the whole of the spring term, and preferably for the rest of the academic year. This means that all work that can be done remotely will be done remotely by default. ‘By default’ means that this will be automatically assumed to be the arrangement for all staff whose jobs can be done from home, with deviations only where a staff member requests to work face-to face and where their safety can be adequately protected.

In support of this:

  • SAGE has stated in a 19 November 2020 paper on the ‘Festive Period’ that the ‘prevalence [of Sars-Cov-19] could easily double during a few days of festive season, with further multiplicative increases as new infections go back to their “routine” networks’. A SAGE report on ‘Celebrations and Observances’ (5/11/20) asserts that major celebrations are ‘highly likely to precipitate nationwide increases in transmission particularly when celebrations are also public holidays’. In further documentation (18/11/20), SAGE states: ‘If pre-Christmas prevalence is high and a lot of indoor mixing takes place, the increase in prevalence could be very large indeed. A parallel can be drawn, albeit on a different scale, between the return of students in Autumn and people from different households mixing intensively over Christmas.’
  • We note the UK government’s advice that all who can work from home should continue to do so until April 2020. Our request that working from home apply for the rest of this academic year is roughly in line with this. The position of UCU as a whole is that all members working in HE (including academic-related/professional services staff for example in libraries), FE, ACE and in prisons should be allowed to work from home in line with government public health guidance and with no financial detriment. This also applies to those employed on casualised contracts of any form.
  • Feedback about online teaching has been broadly positive so far, as has been acknowledged by People and Culture, and student-facing staff, academics and students throughout the University of Essex.

We hope to use the time gained through the current suspension of non-essential face-to-face work at Essex to arrive at an agreement that would allay our members’ concerns and prevent a possible re-escalation on this issue of online working by default, which our members overwhelmingly called for in our EGM of 28 October. We note that Northumbria University UCU recently won a ballot for strike action over health and safety relating to Covid-19, with 66.5% of members voting to strike on a turnout of 67.3%. Similarly, Birmingham City University UCU members are demanding a move to online teaching and are prepared to take industrial action as shown by an impressive 60% turnout in their consultative ballot, while the UCU branches at the University of Birmingham and University of Warwick are also about to open ballots for action to move all non-essential working online. Nationally, there is strength of feeling on this issue which we believe has been reflected by Essex UCU members in surveys and meetings conducted by the branch in 2020. Since the pandemic began, the unions and the University have managed to work together successfully in many instances. While we may have differences of opinion on various matters, Essex UCU branch very much hopes to continue to have a good working relationship with the University now and in the future.

Essex UCU

UoE announce online working and antigen testing (Nov 9 2020)

Essex UCU respond again to UoE 28 Oct 2020

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.

Dear Susie,

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.

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

Yours sincerely,

UCU Essex

Open letter to UoE VC from UCU Essex 19 Oct 2020

OPEN LETTER TO THE VICE-CHANCELLOR FROM UCU ESSEX (19 Oct 2020)

Dear Vice-Chancellor

The Covid-19 crisis in the UK is out of control, with UK universities proving anything but immune from outbreaks. So far 115 universities have reported cases, some reporting hundreds of cases among staff and students, with UEA reporting a total of 87 cases on 16 October 2020.[1] More universities are sure to follow. It is clear that there is no such thing as a ‘Covid-secure’ campus.

Nationally, the R number has risen to 1.3-1.6. We know that infection rates among 18-24 year olds have been running at almost twice the national average.[2] We also know that Covid-19 poses a greater risk to Black and Asian communities and that in recent years approximately 40 percent of our student body has come from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. In addition, many UoE students commute from London which, alongside Essex, has entered Tier 2 restrictions, and stands at a “very worrying tipping point” in the words of its mayor.[3]

UoE owes a duty of care to staff, students, their families and the wider community to stem the further spread of the virus. We are concerned that UoE’s reported cases are likely to be underestimates given UoE’s reliance on antibody testing which is unable to detect people with Covid-19 in the early stages of their infection. UoE now needs to take decisive action to fulfil a duty of care to its community. This cannot be achieved under its current measures.

We therefore urge you to put in place the following measures immediately:

  1. Move all student-facing work online by default, with exceptions for work that cannot be carried out online and for staff who freely choose to opt in to work on campus. Our demand on this front falls only slightly short of ‘Enhanced Protection’ measures UoE had in place in the summer, when the R no. and infection levels were far lower.[4]
  2. Publicly correct inaccurate messaging surrounding the University’s Covid-19 antibody tests. On 9/10/2020, UCU Essex Committee sent a letter to the Vice Chancellor noting the worrying spread of potentially dangerous misinformation about the meaning of a “negative” result on these tests, some coming via official University channels. While some misleading messages have now been deleted, we reassert our call for a public correction of these inaccuracies in the interests of public health.
  3. 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. This means offering antigen testing to all students so that Covid-negative students can go home safely if they desire. In addition, we urge you to join with us in calling for the government to provide funding to cover the loss of rental income.

The longer these decisions are delayed, the greater the danger of disseminating Covid-19 to staff, students, their families and the wider community. The situation is increasingly grave. Before it is too late, we urge you to act decisively. Please could you respond to our letter by 26 October 2020. If we do not receive a satisfactory response by this date, we will consider, among other options, declaring ourselves in official dispute with UoE.

UCU Essex

[1] Unicovid UK – Tracking Covid-19 at U.K. Universities

[2] Riley S, Ainslie KEC, Eales O, Walters CE, Wang H, Atchison CJ, et al., Resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 in England: detection by community antigen surveillancemedRxiv 11.9. 2020.

[3] BBC, Coronavirus: London placed on Covid-19 watch-list as cases rise 25.9.2020

[4] Covid-19 Business Continuity Plan.

Fridays for Future global climate strike (25 Sep 2020)

University of Essex branches of UCU, Unison, and Unite come together to support the Fridays For Future global climate strike. We share with University, College and School students the belief that politicians and community leaders are failing the younger generations in tackling the climate and ecological crisis. Our demand is simple: that governments respect the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming by 1.5°C and take urgent action to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.  
   

The climate and ecological crisis is a trade union issue; there will be no jobs on a dead planet! We support a Green New Deal that will tackle environmental breakdown and  make our societies fairer.

 

https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10999/In-support-of-Fridays-for-Future

https://www.ucu.org.uk/environment

https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10844/The-future-we-choose

UCU Essex Statement on F2F Teaching (Fri 11 Sep 2020)

UCU Essex Statement on F2F Teaching

UCU Essex notes with concern the impact that huge numbers of students moving around the country and interacting in large numbers at close quarters will have on infection rates at a time when rates of infection in the UK are currently rising sharply. UCU Essex further notes that the UK government and the HE sector as a whole have failed to act effectively to minimise risks of Covid-19 infection or to support individual universities in their efforts to protect students, staff, and communities. In line with the position of UCU nationally, with the recommendation of the Independent SAGE group, and with lessons learned from the reopening of colleges and universities in the US, Essex UCU therefore calls for teaching to remain online/remote by default in the Autumn term (except where practically impossible, for example where study involves laboratory work). The recent all-staff survey conducted by Essex UCU highlights that many staff are concerned that conditions for safe on-campus working – such as a fully effective track-and-trace system and a sustained downward trend in infection rates across the UK – are lacking.

 

Our choice to endorse remote teaching by default is taken in view of the primacy of safety, which has guided our joint work with the University since April. This view also leads to our welcoming the leadership that the University has shown in attempting to rise to these challenges on a local level, especially its decision to provide testing on arrival for all students and staff and on a sample basis throughout the autumn term. UCU has been pushing for this safety measure to be put in place and we are pleased that the university management has listened to our reasons for why this is necessary. However, despite this positive development we believe the only way to avoid unacceptable risk to the health of our colleagues, students, and the wider community is to make remote teaching the default for autumn term and until such a time as face-to-face working can be resumed without risk of it contributing to Covid outbreaks.

Along with UCU nationally, we recognise that some staff and students may need to be on campus, and we will continue to call for improved safety measures and risk assessment processes to help make this as safe as possible. We call in particular for clearer, stronger rules about mask use on campus, for a reversion to 2m as the minimum distance for social distancing, for more robust systems in place to ensure compliance with safety rules, for a more extensive testing regime in line with the British Medical Journal’s guidance, and for widescale use of effective ventilation systems.

UCU Essex urges the University management to listen to the alarm bells ringing in the scientific community about universities as places where Covid outbreaks are inevitable by eliminating all F2F teaching whenever possible in the autumn term and until such time that it is genuinely safe. We also object in the strongest possible terms to coercing staff members to return to F2F teaching when they feel that it is unsafe to do so. We simultaneously call on the UK government to demonstrate its commitment to higher education by providing the financial support needed to help universities make the right choice with regard to safety.

Essex UCU

Fri 11 Sep 2020

Legal briefing for branch FTC/GTA/GLA members :Thurs 27 Aug 2020 11am

(posted Tue Aug 25, 2020)

Dear Essex UCU members on FTC contracts incl GTA and GLA members,

All Essex UCU members have just been emailed about a legal briefing that Jo Seery, an employment solicitor at Thompsons Solicitors (www.thompsons.law), will be giving this coming Thursday 27th August at 11am-12.30pm.

Jo will be explaining about the legal position with FTC at Essex including the GTA contract and possible claims people may have and what evidence they’d need to produce to take a claim if their contracts have not been renewed.

If people have questions it would be helpful if they could send them in advance to ucu@essex.ac.uk but she will try to answer queries at the end of the briefing, time allowing.

Search for your email today (25 Aug) from lcollins@essex.ac.uk for your Zoom invitation link to this brieifing or email  Lorraine Collins to attend.