Teaching staff at Northumbria UCU will be balloted on whether to take industrial action in response to a sharp rise in Coronavirus cases.
They are the first UK University to make this announcement.
On 24 September the Northumbria UCU branch formally declared a dispute with the University and gave notice that it will “seek a mandate for industrial action and action short of a strike”.
The motion was passed overwhelmingly with 184 votes in favour, 10 abstentions and no votes against.
The accompanying statement explains that the dispute relates to risk assessments and protocols recommended by the UCU, "without which large-scale teaching is impossible". The statement concludes: “There is far too much at stake. It is a matter of life and death.”
1 in 35 students are now COVID-positive at Northumbria University.
Adam Hansen, Chair of the local UCU branch, repeated the union’s plea for “a cessation of nonessential face to face teaching” on Radio 4 programme PM on Saturday. He explained that campus universities may pose less of a risk but Northumbria students and staff “are absolutely integrated into the community.” He added: “If I was a member of the community, I would be concerned.”
A date for the ballot has not yet been set.
A spokesperson for Northumbria University told the Guardian: “The health and safety of our staff and students is always our first priority. Where colleagues are working on campus we have taken mitigating actions in line with government guidance to make the working environment safe.”
Professor George Marston, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Northumbria, responded to Hansen’s comments that the university’s decision “[has] support from the City Council and Public Health England as well as the Students’ Union.” He insisted that the university is making “the right move”.
A 2019 survey of branch members revealed that the majority of members felt overworked and overwhelmed by competing demands, unrealistic time pressures and unachievable deadlines. A quarter said they always felt pressured to work long hours and over 90% said they had to neglect tasks because they had so much to do.
This workload appears to have surged as teaching staff adapt to remote and blended learning. Nicola Byrom, psychologist at King’s College London, spoke on the severity of the situation with Times Higher Education:
“Academics across the country, I think, are at breaking point with the pressure that they’ve been under to redesign teaching over the summer. They had to cope with changes in assessments, uncertainty for the autumn and then redesign the way they teach.”
Northumbria University have been approached for comment.
Featured Image: Stock Photos