The government is facing a legal battle with academics over its “unlawful” decision to reopen universities for face-to-face teaching last month.
The UK’s largest academic union is seeking a judicial review of the government’s decision to ignore advice from its own Sage committee of experts to move all non-essential university and college teaching online in September. In a pre-action letter, sent to the education secretary Gavin Williamson and shared with the Observer, the University and College Union (UCU) argues the government’s failure to direct universities to move to online teaching this term was unlawful, unfair, unjust and irrational.
On 21 September, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advised the government to introduce immediate measures that would require universities and colleges to move all their teaching online “unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”. Minutes of the meeting, which were disclosed publicly on 12 October, show that the committee warned that “outbreaks are very likely in universities”, and emphasised that the risk of Covid-19 death and severe disease was higher for university and college workers than for students.
A week after receiving this advice, Williamson reassured MPs about the “safety” of students to return to university campuses, and praised university staff and students for putting themselves in “a safe place” where they would be “out of harm’s way”. He also claimed that the government was providing “robust public health advice and regular updates to the sector”, even though he had not communicated Sage’s advice to UCU, which represents more than 120,000 university and college staff.
The UCU president Jo Grady said that the government’s failure to heed the advice of its experts had resulted in large outbreaks of Covid-19 in universities this academic year. “To this day, the government has not followed Sage’s advice, and hasn’t offered any explanation for not doing so, despite clear evidence that continuing face-to-face teaching at universities has contributed to the significant rise of Covid-19 cases across the UK.”
The union has been urging the government to move all non-essential university teaching online since August and hopes that the threat of a judicial review will put pressure on Williamson to follow Sage’s advice and protect students, lecturers and other staff working in universities.
“Lots of people have tested positive and fallen ill. Some are in intensive-care units. We need teaching to go online as soon as possible – but there still hasn’t been an instruction from the government for the basic actions that Sage was asking formore than a month ago.”
The union hopes that its legal action, which accuses the government of procedural unfairness, irrational decision-making and a lack of consultation, will encourage Williamson to listen and consult on any advice Sage may offer in the future about the return to campus next term. “We want to avoid a third wave in January,” said Grady.
UCU branches are monitoring outbreaks of Covid-19 on campuses across the UK and have recorded more than 27,000 positive cases since the beginning of the academic year. “And obviously there are lots of cases that don’t get recorded and many students may be asymptomatic. So we think that’s the just tip of the iceberg,” said Grady.
She accused the government of allowing a public health disaster to unfold. “In Scotland, they had got to almost a zero-Covid situation. And then universities went back and you start to see infection rates in Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrew’s just go through the roof.”
After examining all the published figures of Covid-19 cases at universities, UCU found Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Northumbria universities have all reported having more than 1,500 cases of Covid on campus since the start of term.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “This has been a very difficult time for students, and it was crucial for their wellbeing and education to be able to go to college and university, so their lives are not put on hold. The safety of students and staff is a priority, and universities and colleges worked extremely hard to put in a wide range of measures to deliver learning in a way that is as safe as possible. For many this involves a blend of online and in-person learning, based on the government guidance informed by Sage, and adapting measures to their local circumstances.
“Higher education providers and further education colleges are continuing to work closely with local authorities as well as public health officials to ensure that learning can take place as safely as possible.”