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