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Lockdown-exit plans and procedural concerns

Published: 12th June, 2020

VC Nishan Canagarajah on BBC Breakfast
The VC announced the reopening of campus live on national television… When was he planning to tell us?

This is the text of an email sent to the University’s executive board on 5 June. As yet, we have received no response.

At yesterday’s COVID-19 update meeting you asked us to put in writing our concerns regarding the University leadership’s lockdown-exit plans. We’ve done this below. It’s a long email, but we believe it’s necessary to communicate with you both the reasons why your employees are so angry and distressed and why we believe you have breached your own pledges and protocols.

On the morning of 3 June, the President and Vice-Chancellor appeared on the BBC’s flagship Breakfast television programme to announce the reopening of campus and the University’s proposed blended learning model, ignite [sic]. This live-on-national-TV announcement followed an email sent to all returning and (we believe) prospective students on Friday 29 May, introducing them to the new model. (Emails are available here). Materials promoting ignite have already been published on the website, here, for example.

Our question to the University’s VC is: When were you intending to share these plans with employees, let alone consult us?

The most recent communications staff have received about ignite include a COVID-19 Education Planning Principles document, circulated on 20 May; emails from the Chief Operating Officer on 21 and 29 May, the latter containing a link to this blog with further information. All of these explicitly stated that “we cannot say with certainty when our students will be able to safely return to campus”. The VC’s televised announcement and website guidance, to which the Citizens of Change bulletin on 3 June directed staff, stated that all programmes will have some face-to-face teaching from September; students will have access to campus from “day one”, all small group teaching will run face-to-face and be live cast online, and all lectures will be live-cast online and recorded. 

These announcements left many colleagues blind-sided; many have contacted LUCU officers and representatives to express their dismay and distress on a number of levels. The principal set of concerns can be summarised as follows. The decision to return all programmes to some face-to-face teaching from September and committing to live cast all teaching sessions: 

  1. was communicated to students and the general public before it was communicated to staff;
  2. was made and publicised before the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee had met to agree the guidance policy on safe returning to work and the associated risk assessment protocol;
  3. was made and publicised before staff have been provided with any information about how many socially distanced classes our campus estate can safely accommodate at any one time and about how many people can safely be on campus at one time;
  4. was made and publicised while many staff are exhausted and worried about their capacity to deliver these promises before having clear, detailed and practical guidance about how to translate the laudable principles of ignite into the redesigning of their entire curricula over the next three months and beyond.

Regarding point 2, specifically, the University’s executive board previously decided that the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee should take the lead on plans for exiting from lockdown. This is a standing committee of Council; Leicester UCU has representation on it via its health-and-safety officers, as do our sister unions Unite and Unison. For the purposes of the University’s COVID-19 plans, we requested greater union representation on this committee – we suggested one of our Equalities Officers, at least, should be permitted to attend. This request was declined by the executive board.

But the first formal meeting of the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee since the emergence of the pandemic took place on Thursday 4 June – i.e. almost a week after campus-reopening plans were shared with students via email on 29 May and one day after the VC’s ‘big splash’ on TV. More broadly, the Chief Operating Officer’s email of 21 May stated that the principles outlined in COVID-19 Education Planning Principles document, circulated on 20 May, would be subject to staff consultation, building to a discussion event on 10 June. We highlight this timetable to demonstrate that key decisions – returning all programmes to some face-to-face teaching from September and the live-casting of all teaching events –have been made and publicised before the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee has been able to do its job and before staff have had an opportunity to offer feedback on the ignite consultation. 

We would also like to draw your attention to another set of principles, agreed with campus unions only two years ago. These are the ‘Leading and Managing Change Principles’ – a copy is attached. The intended use of these of these principles is clearly stated on the first page: ‘The principles contained within this guidance document present a recommended approach to leading and managing change across the University. It is the University’s expectation that when considering a programme of change, that this document will normally be referred to.’ The document goes on to reaffirm the University’s so-called VITAL values, before stressing that ‘two key principles underpin effective change management:

  1. People will be responsible for success or failure. Engaging stakeholders, involving staff in planning and decision making, and communicating effectively are vital throughout the process.
  2. Learning and providing opportunities for feedback will allow a dynamic, emergent approach that is likely to be more successful than one which is rigidly planned and implemented without flexibility.

Our contention is that, in the face of COVID-19 pandemic and the momentous changes our you are attempting to effect, these principles and the University’s ‘VITAL values’ have been forgotten. In short, we believe, the University’s executive board is attempting to bypass both the campus unions, its employees – and the wealth of experience that we have – and its own agreed processes.

We have specific concerns, which follow from the above. These include but are not necessarily limited to the following:

  1. The University leadership is paying more attention to marketing than it is to communicating to – let alone communicating with – the people who make possible the education it sells.
  2. The University leadership wishes to promote the University of Leicester as a ‘values-led’ institution. But this leadership is careless of its employees.
  3. Contra established protocol on ‘change management’ and the purported foregrounding of the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Committee, no proper health-and-safety risk assessment has yet been carried out. In particular,
    1. While staff who are shielding have been offered some reassurance, none has been given to staff who are living with, and possibly caring for, others who are shielding;
    2. There has been little consideration of the many employees who must use public transport to travel to campus. If we follow your advice that we travel outside of peak times, will teaching timetables be adjusted to facilitate this? (As a side point, the transport survey we were invited to complete on 29 May betrayed an ignorance of the most basic understanding of how a university works!);
    3. There appears to be no consideration of basic practicalities, such as room capacity. To facilitate safer physical distancing in classes of up to 15 students, seminar rooms with ‘normal’ capacity of 30 or greater must be used – by our count of the Rooms Directory, there are only approximately 90 such rooms. Even this calculus is not credible: 15 people in a classroom designed for 30 implies a one-person-width gap between everyone, which is far from 2 metres;
    4. There are numerous pedagogical and student-safety issues associated with ‘ignite’ that seem not to have been considered. Notably how will teaching staff receive training and time necessary to learn how to deliver effective ‘blended learning’ in the next three months – and what are the implications for colleagues in LLI, learning technologists and departmental professional services staff who often take on the role of IT advisors, even though it’s not part of their formal remit?;
    5. The impact on staff health and wellbeing associated with operationalising ‘ignite’ appear not to have been considered. We have concerns for both teaching staff and for the many other members of the University who make teachers’ work possible and who facilitate students’ learning. To name just a few: those who maintain the buildings or who provide reception and security services; colleagues in AccessAbility, who already understaffed and overwhelmed as a result of the mental-health crisis; library staff who work in open buildings where people come and go all the time.

Since many of our members have expressed worry and anger about these matters ­­– in some cases extreme distress ­– we’d appreciate a quick response. You and other members of the executive board have stressed on numerous occasions that you wish to work with us – something we have always been open to. If we are effect the safe return to campus of students and staff to such a relationship is now more important than ever and we hope it can be developed.

Addendum, 13 June.

The very problems we highlighted in the above letter to the executive board are continuing. In an email of 9 June, for instance, Kerry Law, the Chief Marketing  and Engagement Officer, who is leading the Lockdown Exit Group announced that a new library click-and-collect service ‘will begin this month’. For most library colleagues, this was the first they had heard of this service. We understand it is only under discussion at the moment and no start date has been agreed. We also have concerns the new service will contravene current government guidelines stating that HE libraries must be  closed.