Our employers think the pandemic is over: we must fight for safe campuses

Universities are returning and FE colleges have just returned to campuses amid a high and growing level of Covid-19 infections. Despite the limited extent to which full vaccination has occurred within the young adults we have in our classes, our employers are intent on pushing through as much on-campus provision as possible with as little protection as they can get away with.

Vaccination saves lives, and dramatically reduces the risk of hospitalisation and death. However, people are still getting badly ill. It is too early to know how much double-vaccination reduces the chance of Long Covid, but this is not a reason to gamble with people’s lives in the first place. 

Crucially, vaccination does not stop transmission. A recent Chinese study found about three quarters of secondary cases in double-vaccinated people were ‘pre-onset’ i.e. before symptoms were noticeable in the source. 

There is a real danger of asymptomatic spread.

The demand to fully reopen campuses is intimately tied to Tory plans to cut university funding (‘Augar reforms’). Currently the Treasury has a huge hidden ‘debt mountain’ of £150bn+ in loans, built up since they and the Lib Dems hiked fees up to 9,000 in 2010. The Treasury predicts half will never be repaid. So they would dearly love to rewrite the rules, which they can do by cutting the amount loaned (reducing headline fees) and increasing the amount students pay back (either by increasing the rate or reducing the earnings threshold). Both of these involve an attack on the universities.

Before he was sacked, Gavin Williamson threatened universities with tuition fee cuts if they did not offer face-to-face teaching to every student. Right on cue, an OECD report argues that £9,250 is “too much to pay” for online teaching (without asking whether £9,250 is simply overpriced in any case). Meanwhile UCL is quoted saying that universities are subsidising student teaching. These are symptoms of a tussle about Government spending on universities. 

The truth is that Universities had a “good pandemic”. Student numbers increased by 4%, a record increase since high fees were introduced. Online teaching allowed them to teach increased numbers without paying for additional real estate. Of course, reopening universities with a ‘big bang’ will mean overcrowded campuses.

The Johnson Government wants propaganda to say that the pandemic is ‘over’, and society is going back to normal. Along the way they are attacking staff and vice chancellors by pretending to side with students.  

Of course, this disregards of the history of the last eighteen months which has led to over 135,000 registered deaths from Covid. It also ignores the over 100,000 cases of Long Covid in the under-25s (according to the Office for National Statistics) that will impact lives for months and years to come.

The past eighteen months have been hard on us all. We have lost loved ones, faced isolation and mental health strains, and have often not been able to meet with friends and family. However, our students, our colleagues and the wider community cannot be allowed to be victims of the Tories.

There is no such thing as ‘high quality’ education that puts the lives of students and staff at risk. Education institutions have an obligation not to become centres for the spread of the virus in wider society, as they were last year.

Vaccination is not enough

The vaccines have changed the landscape but, as the rising infection figures show, they are not a panacea. Vaccination reduces the chance of catching Covid, and the severity of symptoms once contracted, but vaccinated people can still catch it and spread the disease. Mass vaccination allows universities and colleges to open up again, but does not warrant the wholesale scrapping of Covid measures on campuses that managements are currently engaging in. 

Many first-year students will only have a single dose. Neither is vaccination mandatory for students or staff. Public Health England report that only around half 18-24 year olds have had two doses.

Yet on many of our campuses, social distancing measures have been removed, room capacities have been restored to pre-pandemic levels and mask-wearing has been made entirely voluntary. 

Institutions are encouraging students to test themselves regularly, but there is currently a net disincentive to test if you think you’ll test positive, and if you have no symptoms and don’t expect to become ill there is little incentive to test.

As Independent SAGE says, we need a ‘Vaccine Plus’ approach.

The risk of getting infected depends on two things. The first is the infectious proportion of the population you might meet. This is termed the prevalence rate, and determines the chance you are exposed to the virus. This will increase if mitigations are not working – in Scotland, rates recently doubled in a week. 

The second factor is the chance of catching the virus once exposed to it. Unfortunately, Delta is about twice as infectious as the first Covid variant detected. Although vaccination appears to reduce the period of time someone may be infectious, it is this pre-symptomatic period, when the person does not know they have Covid, that is dangerous.

Dr Richard Corsi is an indoor air quality expert and Dean of PSU. He popularises this simple equation

Dose(inhal, i) = C(i) x B x t x fdep(i)

i.e. the dose a recipient inhales is dependent on the product of:

  • C(i), the number of particles in a litre of air,
  • B, the breath volume (in litres per minute),
  • t, the time spent exposed, and
  • fdep(i), how particles are deposited in the lungs of the recipient.

The main variables universities can control for are C(i), the Covid particles/litre of air, and t, the exposure period. Higher rates of breathing, B, may occur in gyms and other forms of exercising. 

To reduce C(i) we must fight to maintain mitigations, including 

  • regular testing (ideally, twice-weekly)
  • an expectation that masks are worn, except when by oneself or outside 
  • ventilation to the outside
  • reducing overcrowding
  • limiting class sizes (flipping to online teaching for large classes)

To reduce time exposed, t, the main controls are to

  • attempt to limit longer classes
  • working from home as much as possible

Large classes over 30 or so students risk becoming incubators for the virus. If you think about it, the risk of being in a class with an infectious student or staff member increases if there are more people in the class in the first place. If there is poor ventilation, if people are close together, or move around and mix, then the chance of infection will increase.

These measures are affordable. The sector has recruited record numbers of students and is richer than ever. But it does mean maintaining a safety first culture, where staff and students are encouraged to speak out if they see unsafe behaviour. 

Ventilation

Ventilation has emerged as a new and important issue. 

Part of the problem is that universities were not designed with Covid mitigation in mind. Many lecture theatres were built without windows, and although ventilated, that ventilation might recirculate the air within the building to save heat – these must be switched to bring in fresh air from the outside. Some buildings have had rooms with windows painted closed – these must be opened. 

Systems may have been shut down while buildings were closed: now the advice is they should run for 3 hours prior to the start of the teaching day and for at least an hour afterwards.

Existing mechanical systems may meet the legal standard but they must be properly tested room-by-room and tested regularly. 

The Health and Safety Executive has published a guide to ventilation to manage Covid-19 here, and there are tools for estimating the amount of air that should be pushed through ventilation.

CO2 concentration has been shown to be an effective proxy for the possible presence of the virus in the air. CO2 monitors installed in every room can track the quality of the air in real time. But universities should be proactive and test all of the ventilation systems thoroughly and regularly.

Finally, in the US, HEPA filters, high grade filters with fan systems, are being used in schools to trap and isolate Covid-19 in the air and reduce risks. 

Organising for safe campuses

Appealing to our managements’ better nature is unlikely to work! What can we do?

It is the legal responsibility of employers to make the working conditions of their employees as safe as possible. The key piece of legislation is Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 which prevents the victimisation of workers who refuse to work in conditions hazardous to their health.

This clause is framed in terms of individuals, so we need to find ways to collectivise its use. UCU branches can make it clear that they back individuals using this provision and can support groups of staff citing it to inform management that they refuse to work on campus or in particular rooms unless certain safety demands are met. UCU has produced guidance on other health & safety legislation that can be used to back up such demands, including legislation on ventilation.

Escalation

Beyond that, it may be necessary for branches to go into dispute over the issue of Covid safety. Invoking a local disputes procedure will help to persuade managements to address safety issues properly, but it will also be crucial to demonstrate mass support from staff for the union’s position. In order to undermine management accusations that staff are putting their interests above the students’ education, we should always try to win support from students. We should also remember that institutions are vulnerable to publicity suggesting they are putting public health at risk.

Disputes over health and safety can be escalated to industrial disputes. Northumbria University UCU successfully balloted its members last autumn over management breaches which led to a mass outbreak of Covid among students. The threat of industrial action can be highly effective, but the drawback is that the time it takes to run a ballot is unsuitable for the urgency of a health and safety situation. 

University and college bosses have shown that they are just as likely as other employers to cut corners and relegate safety issues behind other priorities. The health of staff, students and wider society depends on our ability as trade unionists to insist that proper safety measures are enforced. 

UCU at Kings College London have produced a useful webpage listing the legal rights we all have in work under Covid-19.

Further information can be found in the reports and podcasts produced by UCU Left in the last academic year. Including;

UCU Left reports

Helpful guidance from:

Podcasts

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