Unionised staff slam Kingston Uni over coronavirus response

Staff at Kingston University (KU) have criticised the university’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying that current instructions for some staff members put teachers and students at risk.

Staff members represented by the UCU Union said they had voted unanimously for a vote of no confidence in the university’s current approach to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic recently, stating they did not trust the university’s management to provide safe working conditions for their members.

The “very specific” UCU motion backed by members highlighted the current conditions staff at the university are being asked to work under.

“We don’t have any confidence in the management to provide a safe working environment or suitable working conditions.

“That’s largely because the university gave a guarantee to students very early on that there would be face-to-face teaching for students, and we weren’t involved in those discussions,” Nick Freestone, a UCU representative at KU, told the Comet.

He referenced the news that KU reportedly promised students ahead of the start of the 2020/21 term they would provide 30 per cent of their classes in-person on campus, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The university told the Surrey Comet that it has been “meeting with UCU and Unison representatives at sub-committees and meetings held weekly, fortnightly and monthly as part of our commitment to consult fully with our recognised trade unions about the Covid-19 pandemic and the University’s response to it”.

A spokesperson for KU added that the uni “worked closely with Public Health England and Kingston Council” to develop its response to the pandemic.

However, Freestone said the meeting with union reps did not involve discussions regarding the reported pledge to teach 30 per cent of classes in person.

“The union is supposed to be involved in any discussions which involve members’ working conditions, but for some reason we weren’t involved in any of those discussions that concerned the policy of teaching 30 per cent of classes face to face. We’re very unhappy about that,” he added.

In person classes are still being held on campus with mandatory mask wearing and physical distancing between students, though UCU alleges this implies heightened risk for teachers:

“It’s social distancing for students, but when you chop up classes to make it safe for students and give them the 30 per cent commitment, it means that teacher could be giving the same class numerous times,” Freestone pointed out, highlighting the potentially heightened risk of infection from Covid-19.

Meanwhile, teachers at the uni affiliated with UCU say they have been actively discouraged from informing students of their classes if there is a coronavirus case.

One teacher who spoke anonymously with the Surrey Comet said:

“Lecturers know where the confirmed cases are, but their students aren’t being told.

“Their policy is reliant on everyone having the app, and a lot of students don’t have the app for a lot of different reasons, such as because it only works on certain types of phones.

“It seems misguided and morally questionable to keep on going with a policy like this.”

In response, KU’s spokesperson told the Surrey Comet they are using the government’s Track and Trace app to monitor cases on site, encouraging students to download it and get a test if they are symptomatic for Covid-19.

They added that they would soon be making cases recorded on campus at KU available via their webiste:

“All cases are reported to Public Health England’s London Coronavirus Response Cell (LCRC)…We will always follow their directions and carry out additional contact tracing in instances where public health authorities advise this action is required.

“Up-to-date statistical information about any live Covid-19 cases for staff and students will soon be made available on the University’s website as part of our commitment to keeping our community informed around our response to the pandemic.”

Surrey Comet | Kingston