An open letter to Jo Grady and the UCU

The universities union has abandoned students and is encouraging the wholesale dismantling of education.

Harry Butcher

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Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

Dear Jo Grady (head of the University and College Union),

I wonder how you can keep a straight face when you say that UK universities ‘stand ready to support students with high-quality remote learning’. I don’t know what your classes are like – I’m sure you work hard to make them the best they can be. But no amount of tinkering can change the decidedly low quality of online learning.

Ask a student instead of relying on navel-gazing among colleagues, and you’ll soon discover how demotivating it is to be educated in front of a laptop – most likely in the same room that you sleep, staring for hours at the same screen you watch Netflix on, sitting on a chair half a metre from your bed. Less than half of my colleagues even attend most of my Zoom classes.

I’m sure working from home is fine if you’re a lecturer with a big house somewhere quiet. But as a student living in halls, ‘high quality’ would be the last description I would choose. The result is that well-intentioned students are learning very little.

And aside from some wishy-washy emails about wellbeing and deliveries of slightly rancid quarantine food, I reckon we have felt more ‘support’ from a broken parachute cord than from universities right now.

I wonder how on the one hand you claim to have students’ interests at heart, while on the other you argue with enthusiasm that we ought to be spending more time in our rooms, more time gazing at our screens and more time isolated. Platitudes about our mental health are meaningless when you seek to deny students the very things they need for their wellbeing.

There is zero support among students for your proposals – we want the education that we’re paying for. If I were to compile a list of students’ most pressing health concerns, Covid-19 wouldn’t make the Top 50. Tragically, 11 students have committed suicide in the first semester – that’s 11 more than have died from Covid-19. Many more report worsening mental health and, in less pathological terms, feelings of hopelessness. If less time was spent pontificating on how best to restrain us and more on supporting universities as a space for young adults to build on their fledgeling independence, students’ mental health would not be in this dire situation.

I’m well aware that you would rather students hadn’t turned up to halls in the first place, although without this, universities would have faced an unprecedented financial black hole, resulting in the loss of thousands of academics’ jobs – at the behest of their union.

Your grievances about face-to-face teaching are a near-total confection – most courses are already entirely online. Speaking personally, the last classroom I saw was in my secondary school. And in the few universities that have taken the braver approach of offering some semblance of normality, there is not even the merest hint of universities becoming ‘the care homes of the second wave’, as you suggested. This was a crass and offensive comparison that you ought to have retracted.

I’m also struck that you seem to think academics ought to have exceptional protections compared to other workers. What exactly about lecturers is so special that they can’t be in their workplaces – is it because they are more educated? More middle class? Many current students, myself included, were key workers throughout the first wave, working in supermarkets or doing delivery jobs, putting food and other products on the tables of those in middle-class occupations lucky enough to work from home. We knowingly put ourselves at (a sparingly slight) risk. Workers in areas such as agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare went to work throughout the peak of the pandemic with no suggestion that their workplaces were about to become like care homes. We braved it out.

Lecturers ought to put aside their extraordinary preciousness and provide students with the education we have worked for. I would hazard, Dr Grady, that unless you live a subsistence lifestyle, you rely on the services of key workers for your food, deliveries and health needs. It’s a shame that students couldn’t rely on you.

Even if not for students’ sake, perhaps self-interest could convince you to encourage teaching in-person? Online teaching isn’t only devaluing the education of students – it devalues the work of lecturers and teachers such as yourself and those you are tasked with representing as union head. It would be woefully naive to think that universities won’t cotton on to the cost-effectiveness of pre-recorded teaching. As such services can be replicated year to year, or even between institutions, cash-strapped universities will likely choose to make sweeping savings on academic staff by continuing with this format after the pandemic. This academic year’s sky-high drop-out rate alone could create such financial need. Once you let pre-recorded lectures become the norm, you can’t expect to go back to the old ways. The post-pandemic future of British universities will entail mass redundancies – a future that your union is helping to create.

So in the sparing unlikeliness that you would lower yourself to listen to a student’s opinion, I implore you to stop the posturing. Don’t deny reality by talking about ‘high-quality remote teaching’ – it doesn’t exist. Don’t compare university communities to care homes – most of us are at minimal risk from Covid. Tell your colleagues to do their jobs, and students will thank you.

Harry Butcher is a first-year student. Follow him on Twitter: @ae0nia.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

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