Universities accused of pressuring staff to work on campus

Universities have come under fire for pressuring staff to work on campus to create a “vibrant” atmosphere, with one saying it was important students were deterred from seeking tuition fee refunds.

Employees working in administrative roles at both Staffordshire and Birmingham universities told the Guardian that they had been threatened with disciplinary action if they did not come on to campus.

An email from Staffordshire university’s vice-chancellor, Liz Barnes, sent on 27 September, said that staff working from home would have a “deleterious effect” on the university.

She wrote: “Unlike the ‘national lockdown’ earlier in the year, we do not have the same protections against students seeking financial redress if their experience is reduced.

“This means, that if we do not provide the full campus experience to students, albeit in a different way, then students potentially could seek refunds from us. I do not need to highlight the significant impact that such a situation would pose to our income.”

The revelation comes amid growing fears of the risks posed to staff working at universities, where there have been large coronavirus outbreaks in recent weeks. Branches of the University and College Union (UCU) at Birmingham, Birmingham City University, Edinburgh, Queens University in Belfast, St Andrews and Warwick are threatening industrial action over health and safety concerns.

Staffordshire university’s recent blended working policy states: “It is expected that for most staff, the majority of time will normally be spent on the campus.”

One staff member said the policy has turned into a verbal requirement from the university’s executive that all staff – including those in back-office roles such as legal and finance departments – must come into the office three days a week or face disciplinary action.

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She said a new form has been added to the HR system, which staff must complete when they come into the office, with departments monitored on compliance.

An email from the University of Birmingham provost, Tim Jones, sent on 28 September sets out categories of staff required to work on campus, and grants directors the power to demand that their teams are present in person. One staff member said her director was pressuring employees to spend at least 50% of their time on campus or face disciplinary action.

Staff members say the categories are too broad, as they include student support functions that have already shifted most of their activities online. In a poll by the university’s staff network, 92% of respondents said they could do their job from home. An email from its co-chairs criticised a “culture of presenteeism”.

An email from the university’s vice-chancellor, David Eastwood, sent in July insisted that staff work on campus when students return in the autumn “so that when they arrive they feel part of our vibrant community”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, which has declared a dispute with Birmingham over its refusal to move online, said: “If it does not change its position we will be moving towards a ballot for industrial action.

“Universities are transmission hotspots, so it’s disappointing that Staffordshire and Birmingham universities are risking the health of their employees by pressuring them on to campus when there’s no need for them to be there.”

A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said: “We have provided clear guidance about who needs to be on campus and who does not, whilst also noting the university is complex, and with 8,000 staff, line managers are often best placed to assess the local needs of their division.”

“The university works very hard to resolve matters with any member of staff asked to attend campus, who has concerns of any nature, in a constructive manner.”

A spokesperson for Staffordshire University said: “During the lockdown period it was clear from a survey completed by nearly a third of our staff that whilst day-to-day activities could be completed remotely inter- and intra-team working were impacted along with our longer-term development plans.

“An email was sent by our vice-chancellor in September informing staff that the university had put in place all the requirements needed to be Covid-secure. The email did not link the vibrancy of the campus with the blended working framework.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Universities are ultimately autonomous and responsible for their own staffing decisions, but we expect them to make sure staff are as safe as possible.”

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