Trade unions ‘concerned’ with UCD's return to campus

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

UCD’s estimated class times were either over promised or dangerous, according to both trade unions and the Students' Union.

UCD has been in consultation with the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), and Unite the Union (Unite) since early in the pandemic about union concerns. These organisations were given a voice on the President's draft teaching and learning framework for autumn in June, and in mid-august, all three organisations were involved in the Covid Consultative Committee (CCC).

The CCC is purely advisory in its role, as all decisions are ultimately made by UMT. When UCD announced on July 8th that they were aiming for 40%-60% face to face learning for undergraduates and 75-100% for postgrads, IFUT told RTÉ News they were “very surprised", and that they had "no idea" as to how the figures were arrived at. This initial estimation came just a day after schools in UCD had submitted paperwork on how they could manage socially-distanced learning. As one member of academic staff told The University Observer, it takes “half the summer” to plan timetables when there isn’t a global pandemic.

It is understood that unions attempted to engage with the university in good faith, finding the meetings “constructive”. However, IFUT told RTÉ that "We don't know what they mean and we don't know what public health concerns were considered" about the July 8th estimates.

SIPTU has also been vocally critical of UCD’s plans, having sought further clarification from the Department of Further and Higher Education as to which “exceptional circumstances” are exempt from two-metre physical distancing, and whether two-metre social distancing is measure nose to nose, or as the physical distance between people.

Members of staff represented by IFUT and SIPTU are understood to have questions remaining about both the draft Teaching and Learning framework, as well as to how the estimated percentages of time on campus were calculated. SIPTU has told The University Observer that “It is our UCD Section’s view that in relation to all the above Issues, UCD were intent on proceeding with their initial plan and weren’t sufficiently taking on board our representatives' concerns”.

UCDSU have also shared the concerns of the trade unions, having publicly accused the university of “Overpromising” on class time. In an interview with The University Observer, UCDSU President Conor Anderson said “The problem is that the university is going to come back and say ‘Who could have predicted that we would be in this scenario’ and the answer is that the Students’ Union and the campus trade unions could have predicted [this] because we said so in the middle of July. I don’t mean to be flippant with that but we have been saying since the beginning that we are likely going to see a second wave, we are likely going to see an increase in restrictions, now it’s happened in this kind of abstract, last-minute way, which makes it even worse. ...It’s so disheartening to think of how much effort has gone into the planning of a semester that anyone with a reasonable understanding of epidemiology and public health could foresee was not going to happen. But UCD management had their surveys which said that students want to be back on campus, so they monomaniacally pursued this plan of as much in-person class time as possible, and now, here we are. In the exact scenario I described as the nightmare scenario we do not want to see happen. And again, I described this scenario in June”.

In a statement to The University Observer, IFUT stated “IFUT continues to seek that the best experience for third-level students possible be provided, within the public health guidelines. Whilst at the same time trying to ensure that the return to campus is as safe and sustainable as possible. IFUT, in conjunction with the other campus trade unions, has been in discussions since early June with UCD management (UMT). IFUT has consistently sought reassurance that the UMT's plans are compliant with the public health advice, especially since the implementation guidelines for HEIs were published on 5th August. 

“From the outset IFUT UCD has emphasised that the UMT should communicate clearly with students so as to manage expectations. IFUT has also been urging that UMTs’s communications with staff should be clear and timely, and a lack of clarity in this area has meant that planning for autumn has been extremely challenging. This has caused concern for our members, particularly those at higher risk from COVID-19, the union's clear position is that no member should be required to engage in any activity, such as face-to-face delivery, which the member finds unsafe. Given that the present COVID-19 situation means that the vast majority of teaching at UCD, at least for the coming weeks, will be remote, IFUT expects that UCD management will recognise the impossibility of ‘pivoting’ over the weekend to a professional standard of remote delivery given the workloads already being carried by staff.”

In an official comment to The University Observer, SIPTU stated “We are particularly concerned with UCD’s interpretation of the ‘Implementation Guidelines for Public Health Measures in Higher Education Institutions’. We have sought that the Department of Further & Higher Education would emphasise that 2m should be the ‘default’ position and that further clarification to define what is meant by ‘exceptional circumstances’ would, we believe, lead to a more consistent implementation of the guidelines across the sector.

“We have also highlighted where Institutes had interpreted 2m and 1m physical distancing to be measured from ‘centre to centre’ or ‘nose to nose’ and our presumption that the distancing guidelines were meant to denote an actual physical distance of 2m between people. We also have emphasised the statement in the Guidelines that ‘a physical distance of 2m should be maintained under all circumstances’ and, as we have quoted above, the document states that there will be ‘exceptional circumstances’ where this will not be possible. 

“Our UCD Section Committee and representatives have raised all of the above issues locally with UCD at the COVID Committee and at separate meetings with HR. They have also raised issues around students wearing face masks at all times on campus (in all indoor settings). We would also have concerns around Very High-Risk and High-Risk staff and that any plans for staff to return to campus should be phased, taking into account all up to date Public Health advice.”

UCD President Andrew Deeks and UCD communications did not respond to a request for comment on this issue.