Summary of Meeting with UoN – Student Experience / Blended Teaching

UCU met with University management to discuss concerns on the 11th Nov 2020

UCU concerns:

We are still in a position where we are asking staff to deliver in person teaching in the middle of a lockdown. As you know, UCU national position is that all non-essential activity should move online and, as local branch, we have asked that online teaching and working be the default position, with staff being given the choice to opt-in to face to face. We believe that this would be the best solution for all concerned. It is unlikely to result in great disruption to the current provision and changes would be manageable.

There are huge workload implications for moving back and forth between online and face to face, with students or staff in and out of self isolation and these are likely to continue next semester. There are also particular challenges for neurodiverse staff and stress management/anxiety over ‘blended’ teaching.

Online as default and choice to opt in would reassure staff and go a long way in restoring trust and good will among those staff that feel most anxious. It will also keep all staff engaged positively in delivering the rest of the academic year. The rounded experience for students is built on staff anxiety. It would be important to show good will to staff, who are under enormous pressure, compounded by Campus Solutions not working.

Many students are very positive about their online learning experience. You said the next student survey is planned in February 21, we should run this now, get feedback from students, you might be surprised by the responses, and use those to plan for next semester.

There is also the issue of the guidance around pre-recorded lectures, which is only guidance and not policy, like the lecture capture policy, which it is based upon. Having that confirmed as policy would reassure many staff and help build trust.

UoN response:

The key for blended teaching is a pedagogy that is fit for purpose, pedagogy is the priority. The Faculty of Arts felt that they could manage the so called flexi-mode (opt in) and tried that out, they are now gathering feedback from colleagues, working with digital learning teams and learning community forums.

We will take away the suggestion about running the survey now, but we are using the SU’s survey, the LCFs, SETs, so we are getting constant feedback. Some Schools are running their own survey.

The priority now is to get students home safely and to return safely. We will encourage students to get tested, but we cannot require them to use the testing facilities. In January, we will adopt a staggered approach for return and we will need tofind ways to incentivise students to get tested on arrival.

On the lecture capture policy, as you say two weeks ago we published a mirror document that sets out guidance for prerecorded video material. We haven’t turned that guidance into policy yet, due to consultation requirements and timing. We are using the guidance as de facto policy, but happy to take this away and look at turning it into policy asap.

Post-meeting updates:

Pre-recorded lecture materials

UoN confirmed that they have asked the Chair of Teaching and Learning Committee to request TLC’s approval of the ‘Guidance on pre-recorded lecture materials’ document as policy at the next meeting on November 18th. TLC ‘owns’ the Lecture Capture policy on behalf of Education and Student Experience Committee (which reports to Senate). They explained to the Chair that UCU colleagues do not see the need for consultation on the guidance, because of its relationship to the lecture capture policy.

Student survey

With regard to the timing of the Covid-19 Student Experience and Learning Survey, we have subsequently consulted with the team responsible for designing, running and analysing the survey and have decided that we will continue with our current plan. We understand the concerns of UCU colleagues but we are satisfied that we have other means in place to capture and respond to feedback this semester, and there is much more to be gained by surveying students after semester 1 has been completed, and they are back on campus and engaged in semester 2 teaching. They will have had their first assessment period and that gives more validity to the responses in the survey. They will be able to comment on the experience of this years’ blended learning, which is different to the summer experience.

Summary of Meeting with UoN – Finance

UCU met with University management to discuss concerns on the 11th Nov 2020

UCU asked for update, with info re Covid spending

UoN update:

When Covid struck in March, we lost £43m income (commercial, research, tuition), approximately half of it related to a reduction in research income. We would have been in dire straits in August, at the end of the financial year, and therefore had to introduce stringent spend controls. The Emergency Finance Group chaired by Andy Long was created to monitor spend. The finance plan worked better than anticipated and the net debt position (£100m) is as strong as we could have hoped going into this financial year.

FY 20/21 –Projected loss £150m. Just over half of the loss of income relates to a drop in recruitment of international students (assumed loss of 80% of target). The rest is loss of research income, commercial income and catering income. This is a multi-year problem. This year we paused capital investment (with the exception of anything that is H&S related and/or is committed)and implemented the 15% saving plans (covid adjustment plans). We will also borrow more. We have gone into this crisis in one of best places in the Russell Group. That is why we are in position to borrow money.

On recruitment, we achieved 80% of UG, 51% of PGT, 56% of PGR (as of 23 Oct). Further 20% of PGT are due to join in January.

We will not know the full financial picture until shortly before Christmas. The situation is not as bad as worst case scenario, but student retention is a problem. If we have to reimburse accommodation costs, it will have a financial impact. This is not what has been driving our decisions, but it is a reality that we need to take into account.

Re Covid budget, the cost of covid increasing daily level. £6.5m for this year, so far. Testing is costing £2m; the rest is for signage; hand sanitizer, meals for students. The government will pay for Pillar 2 testing, not the asymptomatic testing.

UCU question:

Has a comparative project been made about offset of making the university Covid-safe and going fully online, saving the money of Covid-safe measure? Particularly given that students are increasingly not coming to class.

UoN response:

Student tuition far over exceeds money spent on making campus covid safe. Students need the ‘Campus experience’. It’s not just classes, but other facilities on campus. We have to give a ‘rounded’ offer, including face to face teaching. We continue to think this is valuable.

We are not dismissing the value of online teaching, but we have to give students multiple opportunities. We are not saying that people aren’t doing excellent work in online teaching, but the blended approach is there to give a rounded experience. We have to maintain this offer after Christmas. The real concern after Christmas is mass transport from other parts of country and outbreaks of Covid. We understand the anxieties, but there is no evidence to show that face to face is dangerous. There is no evidence ofrisk related to F2F teaching. The only reason we are going online from 9 December is to allow for students to go home. It is not related to the danger of teaching F2F.

Summary of Meeting with UoN – Health & Safety

UCU met with University management to discuss concerns on the 11th Nov 2020

UCU concerns:

Data of asymptomatic testing is not made available, allegedly due to ethical approval issues. The ethical approval should be reviewed so that data can be shared.

Testing on site needs to be more accessible, particularly for BAME staff and students Rise in staff active cases earlier this week.

Suitability of ventilation in smaller rooms, especially with requirement of keeping windows open and weather becoming colder.

Number of students coming forward for test (both asymptomatic and symptomatic dropping), due to fears of being required to self-isolate. There are also serious concerns regarding student compliance with H&S measures, like wearing masks in study spaces and buildings.

Better communication with students is required, stressing the need to test and comply with the rules. Staff don’t feel protected and therefore anxious.

Presentation of data on active cases on UoN website is biased and partial. Whenever Covid numbers are talked about, they are always low or falling sharply. UoN should do a better job in engendering trust and lower anxieties, by letting the data speak for themselves. Negative testing data should be included, comparison with data for the city should be included, data on turn around time of test should be included. Historic data should be available, not only past 10 days.

UoN response:

Asymptomatic testing data is not released because of the ethical approval linked to it, but we will review that. There is nothing to hide –ca. 400 staff have taken the asymptomatic test and the positive rate is under 2%. Student testing has decreased in recent weeks from 20% to 1%. Reporting asymptomatic testing is delicate, because the city is not doing asymptomatic testing.

More testing sites are indeed needed and two more will be announced on Jubilee and Sutton Bonington campuses at the end of this week. We are also talking to Derby hospital for how we can provide one there.

The number of active cases amongst staff has been consistently fluctuating around 20, it peaked at 40 around three weeks ago, right now there are 23 active cases.

Ventilation and adequate heating in buildings is within the remit of the Covid impact board, which meets regularly and is looking at retrofitting appropriate ventilation systems, as current system is not fit for cold weather. So this is in hand.

With regard to enforcement of compliance among students, this is quite effective in halls of residence, but more difficult to do in other university spaces that are not equally monitored.

We are aware that more needs to be done in this context. We agree that better communication with students is needed and we will work towards this, welcoming any input from UCU.

UCU calls on the University of Nottingham to change course on Covid and move all non-essential activity online.

The University of Nottingham ploughs on with in-person activities despite national lockdown

Thursday, 05 November 2020

The University of Nottingham has confirmed that it intends to continue with its current teaching, research and working patterns, without making any changes even in the wake of the Government’s announcement of new lockdown measures, which will enter into force on 5 November. The local UCU branch, in line with national UCU policy, is calling on the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Shearer West, to exercise her autonomy as Vice Chancellor to move all non-essential in-person activity online.

Government guidance states that ‘to Universities and adult education settings should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible’ while the guidance for Higher Education states that ‘Providers are autonomous institutions. They will make informed decisions (in consultation with their local public health team) on the right blend of face-to-face and online teaching that is suitable for each course, based on the latest public health guidance, taking account of the need to minimise risk to staff and students.’

UCU calls on UoN to rethink its plans in order to protect staff, students and the wider Nottingham community.

Both SAGE and Independent SAGE agree that ‘reducing in-person interaction is a key mitigation against Covid-19 transmission’ in the context of Higher Education. As UCU General Secretary Dr Jo Grady said: ‘Universities must not risk the health and safety of staff and students by allowing non-essential in-person activities to continue. Reducing the amount of in-person teaching and travel to and from campus will minimise the spread of Covid-19 and keep people as safe as possible’. As an institution dedicated to scientific inquiry and to instilling civic responsibility, the University’s current path goes against both of these values.

The University has stated that ‘The number of active cases of Covid-19 among our community continues to decline with currently 97 cases among students and 20 cases among staff’. This data however does not provide full transparency – for example, negative testing numbers are not presented, nor is data on infections in the city we are a part of. Importantly, it does not show whether students are now choosing to not get tested in order to avoid further time in isolation for themselves and their housemates. However, Vice-Chancellor West is right when she says students should not be blamed for this situation – the blame lies with the government, and with her own executive for creating this entirely predictable crisis.

The infection rate (R) in Nottingham continues to be very high, as it has been since the start of term. The Nottingham Hospitals have announced that they are fast reaching full capacity, and death rates have gone up. While the number of infected students on campus has gone down, a large percentage of the student body lives in the community, as does staff. The infection rates in communities outside campus remain very high. Asking students and staff to travel to campus, often using public transport, and have social interactions on campus, at this height of infection makes no medical or moral sense.

We call on the University of Nottingham to reconsider its decision urgently.

Agnes Flues, UCU Branch Vice-President said:

‘We are calling on the University of Nottingham to reconsider its decision urgently, in order to protect students, staff and the wider Nottingham community. Vice-Chancellor, Professor Shearer West should move all non-essential teaching and other activity online’

Motion on online teaching as default during pandemic

The following motion was passed at the Wednesday 14th October branch meeting.

Over the past few months, University of Nottingham staff have been consistently reassured by senior management that the question of “face to face” (f2f) teaching would be handled in a flexible and safe manner. However, facts on the ground have contradicted this. ​Many schools across the University report that they are still being forced by senior management to push staff into f2fteaching against their wishes​. The Motion passed by the Sept general meeting sought to address this by recognizing management’s assurance that no member of staff would be “compelled” to teach f2f.It has since become apparent this assurance has not been kept by management, who have refused to clarify what this phrasing actually means. This ambiguity has resulted in individual members of staff having to negotiate their way out of f2f with their line managers. Consequently, many staff continue to feel they are being compelled to deliver f2f teaching.

Nottingham’s student community, at the time of writing, has the ​second highest rates​ of Covid in the country, only behind Manchester. As of Oct. 6​th​, Manchester University, Manchester Metropolitan University, and University of Sheffield have suspended all non-necessary f2f teaching. To carry out discretionary (non-lab/performance based) f2f teaching when community infections rates are so high, and even higher amongst the student population, is to knowingly and willfully expose students and staff to a life-threatening and potentially long-term health hazard. That is unacceptable.

The current situation not only poses a direct threat to staff health but also imposes immense stress on them and their households and families. The requirements to shuffle students between online and f2f as they move in and out of isolation is degrading the capacity to teach effectively across the board, as well as generating huge additional workloads for staff from all job families.

This motion reaffirms the local branch’s support for the national UCU position, and that of Independent SAGE, in line with widely accepted scientific evidence, namely that online working – for both teaching and support activities – should be the default mode of delivery, other than in those cases where this is practically impossible (such as labs, performing arts, etc).

We demand that senior management urgently enter into negotiations with the union on the following points:

  1. Recognize the expertise of staff in digital learning by assuming online teaching as the default method of delivery (with exceptions as above).
  2. Only continue discretionary f2f teaching ​on the basis of staff opt in,​ free from compulsion in any form. This applies equally to fixed term and hourly-paid workers, as it does to permanent staff.
  3. These arrangements should continue until it can be agreed with the local branch that it is safe to resume f2f.

Covid Impacts on UoN Student Community

The following motion was passed at the Wednesday 14th October branch meeting.

This branch notes the high number of UoN students currently required to isolate due to Covid infections or exposure. It also notes the unacceptable consequences this is having for our student community, as reported here and here, as well as the huge reputational damage this is doing to the HE sector.

In the immediate term, it is apparent that students have in many cases been poorly treated by a management that seems to have devoted its efforts to getting things back to normal, and has subsequently been wrong-footed by the reality that things are not. Students have variously been left without support, virtually imprisoned, on the receiving end of communications completely lacking in compassion or understanding, blamed for simply pursuing the “student experience” they were repeatedly promised and, alongside frontline staff, been left scrambling for relevant information.

Beyond these most pressing issues, it is now apparent that a sustainable solution to the situation we find ourselves in must include students being given the opportunity to leave their accommodation and continue this semester from their homes, should they choose to. We as a university community cannot continue to act like these problems will just go away.

In passing this motion we declare our support for the students of UoN. We echo the Student Union’s key demands in their letter to the UEB, that students:

  • Be empowered to make their own choices; to remain on an online only course, to defer to a future year, or to leave their course entirely
  • Suffer no financial detriment, including in relation to private accommodation
  • Be treated fairly and proportionately as members of a civil society

Additionally, we call on the university to ensure the following:

  • That the immediate crisis referred to above is addressed urgently, not only in terms of the logistics of supporting and managing students having to isolate, but also the human side of the challenge – in terms of communications which are compassionate and prompt, and do not rely on personal tutors working all hours as welfare officers.
  • That management reconsider their approach to preparing for Covid crises, which to date has been marked by considerable attention to technical matters, and an almost complete absence of such attention to human questions. The scramble to deal with isolating students need never have happened – it was entirely predictable. We should expect further challenges ahead. We call for management to build on its existing working arrangements with the local branch, and go even further, by consulting the whole university community in order to draw on the depth and diversity of its expertise.
  • That management take account of the huge workload demand on staff which is being generated by having large numbers of students switching in and out of isolation, and so switching between online and face-to-face teaching, and urgently put forward a plan for dealing with this which is sustainable.
  • Finally, we demand that the university work alongside its fellow institutions and use UUK to push aggressively for the Government to step in and address the funding crisis underpinning these problems. We note that UUK has been almost entirely absent from the debate, as all sides – including government! – have lined up to criticise the sector in recent weeks. UUK must be willing to represent the whole sector in times such as these, and not just be a vehicle for attacking staff during industrial disputes.

UoN Must Save Our PGR Teachers

At the end of April 2020, the Faculty of Arts announced that it was cutting all postgraduate teaching opportunities from its 2020/21 budget, and since then the Faculty of Social Sciences has followed suit. In some departments, it is standard for teaching posts to only be offered to final year PhDs; colleagues who have gone through a year-long unpaid training programme and interview process, only now to be facing no chance of getting this essential career experience.  We are clear that these cuts are a choice; the UCU has recently learned that the combined cost of cutting PGR teaching in both Faculties could be recovered with money to spare, if the University simply stopped running one of its managerial training programmes for a year. 

It has been two months since this announcement, and the situation is still unclear. PGRs have been told since the cuts were announced that the only alternative was to be (unpaid) teaching training via the Graduate School (now Researcher Academy), though we were never given details about what this would look like, how it could possibly compensate for classroom experience and how it would be accredited. We have since learned that these questions have no answers, because the Researcher Academy does not currently have the provisions to provide such training. Following collective action from PGRs and pressure from both the UCU and the UoN Anti-Casualisation Campaign, some headway is starting to be made in discussions, but the genuine alternatives we are suggesting are still in competition with unpaid, unaccredited, unsatisfactory ones (e.g. shadowing contracted staff teaching, attending one-off teaching conferences).   

PGRs should be teaching in classrooms in the 2020/21 academic year. In addition to helping reduce the workload on contract staff, who have already taken part in strike action twice in the past year because of overwork and underpay, postgraduate teachers bring enthusiasm and excellence to teaching at Nottingham.  Two of the five recipients of the Tri-Campus Postgraduate Teaching Awards 2020 were from the Faculty of Arts, including myself, as were two of the five postgraduate teachers who were highly commended in the category. Despite this, our contracts are casualised and outsourced to a temp work agency, and we have been among the first to be placed under the axe. 

I have been fortunate enough to have taught for two years, and it’s a genuine pleasure that I want all of my colleagues to be able to experience. But it’s not just enjoyable, it’s necessary. On June 17th, required training for current final year PhDs in the Faculty of Arts repeatedly stressed the necessity of teaching experience in applying for academic careers, while making some small mention of how this will not be possible for those coming to the end of their studies next year. Schools and Faculties know this, which is why we’re still hearing talk about PhDs ‘volunteering’ their teaching next year to gain experience, despite insistence from Faculty management that this will not be allowed. It must not be; it would be asking us to set a dangerous precedent by agreeing to do unpaid work. Such ideas are particularly troubling, as teaching is not just career development; for some PGRs (particularly those who are marginalised in academia and/or who self-fund) it can be an indispensable means of generating additional income.

Daniel, PGR Teacher / Teaching Affiliate

Stories from the picket line

Thank you all for your incredible solidarity over the 14 days of the strike. With your teach-outs, baked goods, music, conversations, and picketing in the rain / hail/ wind/ occasional sunshine, we have stood together and have made our voices heard.

We continue to fight the dispute, but as a committee we are massively impressed and inspired by the support and determination of our branch members over the last few months.

Check out this video made by Sophie Chester-Nash, ‘Stories from the picket line’

And this video made by Mark Jago to mark our branch’s celebration of International Women’s Day, ‘Striking is a feminist issue’

POSTPONED: Rally at Jubilee, Friday 13th March

Our end-of-strike rally will be postponed until the risks posed by coronavirus have abated. The decision of whether or not to continue with pickets has been devolved to the Branch and these will proceed as planned, though individual members are encouraged to use their judgment before joining a picket line. In particular, if you have a cough that is persistent or new, or have a temperature of 37.8 degrees or higher, please follow the Chief Medical Officer’s advice and stay at home for at least seven days.

The decision of whether or not to proceed with picketing has not been taken lightly, but collectively we have been through heck of a lot over these past four weeks and it is important that we are able, as much as individual circumstance allows, to come together on the picket line for the last day of strike action. It is also important for us to publicly mark our strike action given that the University remains open.