The union has been taking the views of our members to ministers and civil servants consistently throughout the pandemic period, and has made a number of interventions on funding, protecting jobs, and safe returns to campus, over the past few weeks.
Lobbying against job losses
In the last month UCU met, along with other campus unions, with the Minister for Further and Higher Education Richard Lochhead MSP, to raise our concerns on the rush to cut jobs in universities and colleges. Unions urged the minister to ensure employers to follow Fair Work principles, consult meaningfully with campus unions, and do all that they can to avoid making redundancies. The Minister agreed to raise these issues with employers – and his correspondence to employers is here (and was circulated to all our branches on 21 August). The union has been clear that the sector needs to be at the forefront of the education-led recovery, and not contributing to the unemployment claimant count.
SQA exams fallout
Last week UCU welcomed the Scottish Government’s U-turn on SQA exam results, so as teacher predicted grades now stand. We also welcomed the commitment of the Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP to fund the additional college and university places that would now be required given the exams grade uplift. Since that announcement the union has been pushing government to provide clarity on additional university places, and importantly, to fully fund those places too. These points were made clearly to Richard Lochhead when he met unions on 18 August, where he did say government is committed to funding the extra places. In closing the discussion the minister asked that we thank all of our members – the staff in the sectors – for everything they are doing in these challenging times.
Ministerial Leadership Group Meeting: SQA exams, funding, and safe returns to campus
The Deputy First Minister, Education Cabinet Secretary, John Swinney MSP came along to the ninth meeting of the group on 20 August, chaired by Richard Lochhead. Mr Swinney reported on the SQA exams situation, the extraordinary circumstances with the cancellation of exams, and how he took responsibility for the change in approach. He indicated that the Scottish government’s support for an expansion of places in universities and colleges as a result of this decision should have a beneficial impact to give positive opportunities for individuals at a time when we are seeing a rise in unemployment generally.
Universities Scotland and UCU both pushed the Deputy First Minister on the funding of the additional places, and the need for teaching places for Scottish domiciled students to be fully funded by government, given the shortfall institutions are experiencing in international student fee and commercial income streams. UCU echoed comments from Colleges Scotland on the need to avoid displacement in the system too, so as colleges, post-92s and other institutions don’t lose out as upgraded students look for new places. UCU reiterated that the funding of places was important given universities and colleges are already making moves to cut jobs across the sector.
Disappointingly the Deputy First Minister said he couldn’t give any definitive answers on funding at the moment, but wanted to support the financial sustainability of institutions. The Scottish Funding Council updated the meeting on its work in this area too, and that it is looking at funding, capacity – what the increase in places means, retention and support (to ensure students progress successfully), displacement (and the system-wide impact), and the multiyear impact on the SQA exams situation – in that it will impact on 3-4 academic years to come.
The meeting also covered safe re-opening of colleges and universities, with the Deputy First Minister stressing the fragile position that we’re in, and the need to tread very cautiously, taking balanced measures.
National Clinical Director Professor Jason Leitch updated the group on the current state of play, noting the concerns on the rise in new infections in Scotland, and that the global situation is much worse with the virus accelerating around the world. He emphasised that the virus is not under control or close to being under control in a global context. For Scotland he explained that Test and Protect is working well with over 90% of contacts traced in the 12 outbreaks we’re currently seeing across Scotland, and that people in the main are obeying the rules. The government wants our sectors to open safely, and that has to be subject to mitigations. He said testing should form part of that regime, particularly testing in high risk areas, and that there are plans for walk-in testing centres in areas accessible for university and college staff and students.
UCU had posed a couple of questions in advance of the meeting to Professor Leitch:
- What lessons should Scottish universities take from the experiences of US institutions that have already had to shift their plans for in-person teaching to online learning, and how can we ensure Scotland’s public health guidance on quarantining, social distancing, and test and protect is adhered to within our sector – particularly thinking about international staff and students newly arrived in Scotland?
- How does the Scottish Government reassure students and staff from vulnerable groups (BME, older people, disabled, pregnant etc) who are anxious because their institution is requiring them to be physically on campus participating in face to face classes in the next few weeks?
Professor Leitch responded on the first saying that the US does not have control of the virus, implying that the so the context for Scottish universities is different. However he did say that enforcement is an issue, and at the moment we are “requiring” people to follow the rules, and do our best to get the messaging right. He asked for help from universities, student leaders and all stakeholders in getting the compliance message across – and there was a fair bit of discussion on strong clear messaging, particularly for students and young people.
On the second question, he had already said that the biggest factors in terms of vulnerability are age and obesity, and he spoke about ensuring individual risk assessments are undertaken, and that where people score highly in terms of risk then they should not have a front facing role at the moment, or if students they shouldn’t attend class but access to learning in other formats. He encouraged use of the individual risk assessment form which has been devised for people returning to work after shielding, are vulnerable or who have other concerns.
UCU is continuing to engage with civil servants on safe returns and the range of mitigations that are possible.
The final agenda item was a brief update from the Scottish Funding Council, to thank partners for their responses to the current review of provision, and that a further update would be provided in September. UCU’s response to the review is on the UCU website.
Further information on the Ministerial Leadership Group is here .