Tag Archives: COVID-19

Campus Update: Quieter, But Not That Quiet

What’s campus like this term, then? With even fewer of us likely to be visiting any time soon, your intrepid correspondent reports.

You might expect the answer to be empty, but, despite what you may have read about everyone staying in their parental homes until March, there are still plenty of people around. Some of them never left at all, of course. Reportedly, around 500 students were on campus at the start of January, and that number has grown considerably since then. The Vice-Chancellor observed, at his all-staff meeting on Friday 29 January, that over 40% of campus rooms were currently occupied.

The lack of campus teaching does make the Spine startlingly quiet, even at lunchtime, but people are still there — just not moving around as much. The food outlets are still open and people are still queueing for Greggs.

Security staff seem to be busy preventing illegal parties, which appear to be more prevalent this term, in the residence blocks. Parties of up to 80 people have been reported both on- and off-campus; the BBC picked up on a recent incident in which a warehouse party with 50–70 attendees was broken up on St George’s Quay:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-55989890

Evidently, our students are increasingly disillusioned with the state in which they find themselves, though some are responding more productively than others (see our articles in this issue on the student rent strike).

Our newest facility, the Margaret Fell Lecture Theatre next to Chemistry, is now open — well, the building is, although no-one is currently using it. It’s a pleasant, tiered theatre, shaped a bit like Faraday, but with brown seats. The entrances are at the bottom, rather than the top, so students seeking to sneak into their 9am lecture late without being noticed will be very disappointed.

Much of the buzz on campus, such as it exists, comes from movement in and out of the asymptomatic coronavirus testing facility in the Great Hall.

Whether or not we resume face-to-face teaching on Monday 8 March — subtext, for one, is a little sceptical about this — it seems likely that the current slightly occupied mood on campus will persist for a long while yet.

Struck Off

Lancaster’s student rent strike, which saw thousands of learners organise remotely to challenge the University’s insistence that they pay for campus rooms that they weren’t using, ended last week. The Director of Finance reported, at the Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff meeting on 29 January, that 2,000 students had accepted management’s initial offer of a £400 goodwill payment; this offer was recently doubled to £800, which led to the decision to call off the campaign.

subtext congratulates the organisers, and those taking action, for once again highlighting the consequences of Lancaster’s student residences contract with UPP. As the Vice-Chancellor noted at the all-staff meeting, the University is liable for the rent, whether there are students in the rooms or not.

In a special report, one of the strike organisers gives their own account of the campaign.

Diary of a Rent Strike Organiser

Contributed article by Jude Rowley

Lancaster students have spent the last five weeks calling on University management to cut the rent and start taking student wellbeing seriously.

When the pandemic hit last March, students — fed-up with being abandoned by University management and following in the footsteps of their predecessors in the 1974–75 academic year — decided to take action and organise a rent strike. The strike was largely successful, with millions of pounds worth of concessions having been won back in rent.

At the start of this term, students found themselves in a very similar boat. Instructed not to return to campus and to instead continue online learning from their current residence (with some exceptions, including for critical courses like Medicine), the majority of students have not returned to Lancaster. It is difficult to say exactly how many students remain on campus and how many have stayed home. Indeed, even University accommodation teams have been struggling to work this out themselves, with repeated emails to students asking them to confirm their whereabouts, likely in recognition that this would determine the scale of the reductions (if any) management may see fit to offer to students. This has since escalated, and students are now prevented from accessing their course materials on Moodle until they state their current whereabouts. However, anecdotal evidence suggests a roughly 70/30 split between those at home and those on campus.

With students on- and off-campus both being charged full rent amidst the University moving online, we decided, as a group of student organisers, to call a rent strike. Within a matter of days, over 1,300 students joined the strike, and we gathered over 1,500 signatures on our open letter calling for the rent strike demands to be met. These demands were fourfold:

– 50% rent reductions for students on campus;
– 100% rent reductions for students off campus;
– improved student well-being support, including mental health provision and hardship funding; and
– no repercussions for students on rent strike.

The most important priority of the rent strike was that no-one would be left behind. Though the 2020 student rent strike won major concessions, international students and others who were trapped on campus were not offered reductions or waivers. This time, the organisers resolved to keep pressure on the University until they made an offer that provided something for every student, regardless of their whereabouts, accommodation type, or fee status.

Management at first sought to ignore the rent strike, refusing to accept it as an organised movement rather than individual students independently deciding to withhold rent. However, we found the most effective tactic was to turn to the local and national press to put pressure on the University. It turns out that management will tolerate many things, but they draw the line at negative publicity that might undermine that prized top 10 status we hear so much about. After interviews and features on BBC News and in the local media, management eventually came out with the offer of a £400 rent reduction as a gesture of their good-will, but were quick to stress that their good-will only extended to students who: (a) were unable to return to their campus accommodation; and (b) paid their outstanding rent for the term in full. For many students subject to ever-rising campus accommodation costs, this amounts to less than 3 weeks’ rent, and was therefore met with anger and righteous indignation. An online survey found that more than 7 in 10 students rejected the offer outright.

Students felt they were not being listened to, so we called for University management to meet with rent strike organisers for constructive discussion on striking students’ demands. Eventually, with mounting student pressure, management agreed to a meeting, facilitated through the Students’ Union and informally chaired by the Students’ Union President.

This seems to mark a shift in management’s approach to student activism, as they had certainly not agreed to meet organisers of other recent student campaigns, aside from an impromptu confrontation with the then-acting Vice-Chancellor in Alex Square last February over institutional bullying (see the subtext 192 editorial). Despite these meetings, management remained predictably non-committal. Keen to insist that they are listening and that we are all in this together, they promised movement on the priority issues for the rent strikers, without actually delivering much at all.

Upping the offer for those off-campus — with nothing for those lured back to campus by necessity or by University encouragement of a return to normal after Christmas — appeared to be an attempt to turn the two groups of students against each other, in an attempt to divide our rent strike. We made it clear that students were united and would not give in until there was something offered for everyone. We were equally quick to stress throughout that we fully support the campus UCU, Unison, and Unite branches and would not tolerate any attempt by management to divide staff and students. We have been grateful to have the full support of Lancaster UCU from the outset.

Our main message throughout has been that we want recognition of the difficulties facing all students and concessions that benefit every member of the Lancaster University community. Despite assurances that this had been taken into account, management strategy did not appear to have changed. At the start of Week 15, they doubled the £400 rebate for students who would not return to campus before the 8th of March, whilst ignoring the other demands and, significantly, refusing to acknowledge that their hand had been forced by striking students.

We attempted to keep up the momentum and sustain the strike, but this became increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, management’s divide-and-conquer tactics were more successful than we’d hoped. By the end of Week 15, our numbers had dropped significantly with many students taking the £800 offer and paying their rent. At the outset of the rent strike, we set ourselves a red line: if the strike fell below 500 participants, we knew we could no longer safely continue without running the risk of repercussions or disciplinary action against individual students. Having fallen to just over half of this number, we had to take the hard decision to call off the strike.

This may feel like a defeat, but in many ways it is not: we have won £3 million worth of concessions in rent, significantly improved mental health services for students, and a reformed and streamlined student support fund. Perhaps even more significantly, students have mobilised and taken collective action, and there is momentum to take this forward.

Testing Testing Testing

Our lateral flow coronavirus testing facility, located in the Great Hall, is now open. Staff and students are being encouraged to make use of it:

https://portal.lancaster.ac.uk/intranet/cms/coronavirus/staff-asymptomatic-testing

It’s all very efficient, with stewards directing you towards the (short) queue and handing out barcoded entry tickets. The process of registering the information from that ticket, via your phone, takes a bit of learning. After scanning the barcode with a QR code reader, you’re asked whether you want to register with or without the NHS app. Your correspondent blundered at this point by selecting the NHS option, only to be told by the helpful steward, it’s easy, just make sure you don’t select the NHS option! Five minutes later, having waited for a registration email that never came, the same steward advised going to one of the helpfully-provided iPads in the lobby, where the non-NHS registration process was completed in under a minute.

Onward, then, to the Great Hall, where you’re directed to one of around 16 booths, in which a helpful assistant takes you through the process of taking a swab, rubbing it on your tonsils (pause for gagging) and then sticking the same swab up one of your nostrils, until you feel resistance, rotating it a few times, and then withdrawing (you’ll want to blow your nose at this point).

That’s it. In and out in fifteen minutes. The result comes within half an hour, via text message. All done, until the next appointment — you’re encouraged to book a repeat session three days later.

Tranquil Repose

subtext usually tries to avoid telling its readers about things they already know, such as new features on campus, but this term — well, it’s a bit different. Many staff haven’t been back since evacuating in March and may be wondering what the place is like these days; allow us to be your guide.

In short, it’s peaceful. During the day you might only pass 20–30 people, though all the terrifying Protect and Survive-style posters give the place a slightly eerie atmosphere.

Facilities staff have done wonders with signage, hand sanitiser stations and other nuts-and-bolts provisions to minimise any risks. The one-way system in most buildings is usually surplus to requirements, as your chances of passing someone on your corridor are fairly minimal.

WHSmith is closed with no indication of when it will re-open, but Greggs and the ice cream parlour are still trading, whilst Costa is open for take-away drinks and food only.

The campus SPAR on Edward Roberts Court, largely unchanged since it moved into that unit at the end of the ’90s, has had a major makeover. The external fascia has been replaced, the corridors are wider, the coffee machine is near the entrance and the checkout area has been remodelled. The selection does seem to be slightly reduced — one of the appeals of the old SPAR was the bargain warehouse that’s packed to the rafters effect — but the overall shopping experience is a great deal more pleasant. It’s (almost) worth a journey.

The new 400-seat lecture theatre between Faraday and County South seems to be close to completion (from the outside, anyway) and it looks attractive. The Management School extension is almost finished too, although style-wise this resembles a giant Portakabin.

All the college bars, except the Herdwick, re-opened at the start of term — and were well-used during Welcome Week — but now that we are officially a Tier 3 campus, only Fylde’s and Cartmel’s are still trading. The system for ordering food and drink takes a bit of time to get used to (go in, sit down, scan QR code on the table, go to online menu, order, wait for person to approach asking for payment, pay by card, wait for order, receive it in a few minutes) but is well-run. Watching groups of suitably-distanced staff and students sat outside Fylde bar, one could almost forget the odd times we’re in.

In the evenings you often see clusters of students sitting outside (no more than six at a time, of course) on the steps of Edward Roberts Court or Alexandra Square, socialising as best they can. Student societies are mostly meeting online, but there are still plenty of event posters adorning the campus noticeboards.

Because parcels are no longer delivered to colleges, there is now a central parcel collection point on Edward Roberts Court, which has taken over the unit previously occupied by the St John’s Hospice charity shop, who have sadly left campus with no plans to return. This has led to very long, socially-distanced queues of students forming at most times of the day, often snaking all the way down past Furness. Some students have rightly complained that the collection point, and in particular the marquee-style tent erected outside it, is currently blocking the wheelchair access route up to Alexandra Square, thus requiring students in wheelchairs to take the long way round via the lift outside Pizzetta.

The underpass has an efficient one-way system in operation, with one staircase down only and the other staircase up only; so efficient, in fact, that one wonders why they didn’t think of this before. Buses are running as normal (see our bus update later in this issue) but cycle use has increased.

The overall effect is rather like the one year later… coda you often see at the end of a disaster movie, where, even in the face of catastrophe, the signs are that things might just, one day, return to normal. Let’s hope so.

Demanding an Unsafe Teaching Environment

Amongst the many strange bits of guidance issued to staff in recent weeks, Managing a Safe Teaching Environment, a set of rules on masks and social distancing issued on 2 October 2020, is well worth a closer look. Many teaching staff will have been wondering whether, faced with a potentially difficult situation in a teaching space, they should put health and safety considerations first. There is now a definitive answer from the University – no.

The document is officially unauthored, but the file properties credit Prof Alisdair Gillespie (Law School) as the creator.

Staff are reassured that masks aren’t really needed in the first place: if a person is in a class without a mask then, so long as social distancing is maintained, the risk of transmission is not increased significantly. The word significantly is doing some heavy lifting there.

Social distancing regulations are treated very seriously and can be enforced by Security. If a student refuses to maintain social distance, you can ask them to leave and take a note of their name. If they refuse to leave, you may need to contact Security or end the class.

But as for masks – well, there are valid reasons why some students are exempt from wearing them. They may choose to wear a sunflower lanyard to indicate their exempt status, or use an e-exemption card on iLancaster, but this is not a requirement. In a classroom situation, students and teachers will understandably be concerned if someone turns up not wearing a mask or displaying a sunflower lanyard. What should the teacher do?

The University’s official advice is: you must do nothing, even if you believe the student may be putting others at risk, or if other students have indicated their concern. There is no requirement for students to inform the tutor that they have an exemption in advance of the session. Politely asking to see a student’s e-exemption card, or discreetly inviting a student outside to have a socially distant chat about safety, may be embarrassing or exclusionary. If other students voice their worries, your duty is to remind them that some students are exempt, and do everything you can to ensure that students not wearing a mask don’t feel uncomfortable. The most you can do is note the offending student’s name and take it up with them afterwards. Could be a bit late by then!

Ah well, at least we’re not allowing students who are coughing and sneezing to stay in our seminar rooms. What’s that… we are? Yes, we are. Remember, students with colds are entitled to attend classes and asking a student to leave the class when displaying symptoms of a cold is likely to prove highly embarrassing and distressing to a student, potentially leading to complaints. Well, at least we know they’ll be wearing masks… oh…

As an aside, it’s interesting that the risk of Lancaster receiving a (possibly vexatious) complaint seems to alarm senior management more than the risk of staff and student infection.

Prof Gillespie’s guidance received endorsement from a surprising source on 15 October, in an email from Lancaster UCU to its members. Having sought clarification from HR and the Safety Office about face coverings in classrooms, and what to do if students don’t wear them, the union’s stance is that, it’s tricky – but the short answer, reasonably, seems to be that we can and should do NOTHING.

subtext readers are reminded that, according to section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 on workplace health and safety, they have the right not be subject to any detriment by their employer if, in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work. If you think someone is potentially putting you and your students in danger then you are within your rights to leave, bringing your students with you.

LUText Lost & Found

Whilst Lancaster has thus far avoided any of the scenes that have blighted some of our Mancunian fellow-institutions (as far as we are aware, none of Lancaster’s students have been forced to remain within their accommodation by Security), we are not above charging self-isolating students £17.95 per day for food parcels; packages that, when purchased from Asda, are apparently worth £2.70 a meal. A bold move. The full story is available at:

https://www.lancasterguardian.co.uk/education/self-isolating-students-lancaster-university-charged-ps1795-day-food-parcels-2995387

According to annual monitoring data sent by Lancaster to the Office for Students, just 11% of the students we admitted in 2018–19 were from the most deprived quintile of households:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/admissions/ofs-transparency-data/

It’s difficult to see this figure changing any time soon.

You Are Ordered to Return Whether You Want to or Not

Spare a thought for our returning second-, third- and fourth-year students; particularly those with rooms on campus this year. It seems that, whilst first-years were offered rooms on relatively flexible terms this year, including the option of studying remotely over Michaelmas Term and only beginning to pay rent after Christmas, returners are being held strictly to the conditions they signed back in December. The university’s stance is: You signed for the room, so you’ll pay for it from October, whether you’re occupying it or not. Students who decided to study away from campus, and hence declined to start paying rent, are reportedly now receiving formal letters demanding payment from college accommodation staff.

The University makes it clear in Our Promise to new students:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/our-promise/

that for those unable to join us on campus in September, a warm welcome will await you later in the year. Specifically, for all new students, accommodation contracts will only begin when students collect their keys, which means that if you need to move in later than expected, accommodation fees for the period before you arrive will be waived. What about returning students, though?

The official terms and conditions, at:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/accommodation/terms-and-conditions/

make a strict distinction between contracts accepted on or after 23 July, where deposits will be returned if the agreement is made remotely and not completed by the collection of the keys in the presence of the Lancaster University member of staff, and contracts accepted before 23 July, where no such exception applies. Hence our promise to returners seems to be pay up or else, despite the goods not exactly being supplied as originally promised.

The city councillors for the campus have pressed senior university officers on this point, most recently on 22 October:

https://www.facebook.com/LancsUniLabourCllrs/posts/1571437339725303

The councillors feel that no one should have to pay for accommodation they are not living in. As reasonable as that sounds, it appears that Lancaster University begs to differ.

Bus News

subtext‘s intrepid Stagecoach correspondent reports…

Worries about virus transmission on public transport to and from campus have been, justifiably, one of the main concerns expressed by staff and students alike. So, how safe are things on the ground?

Signs as you embark ask passengers to sit in a window seat, with an empty row in front and behind you, but are these rules being enforced? Not really, but only because the buses are so sparsely populated that the risk now seems quite small, with many who would normally travel by bus opting to walk, cycle or drive instead. Your correspondent has only seen one example of a bus full sign being displayed, on a number 100 as it whizzed past the Infirmary; every other time, there have been at most 10 people on each deck.

The don’t sit next to anyone advice is adhered to rigorously, whilst the make sure there’s an empty row in front and behind you advice is being interpreted more flexibly: complied with if the numbers (or convenience) allow it, but not if they don’t. Almost everyone is dutifully wearing a mask, although this is reportedly not the case on some of the city centre shuttle services. Usually there will be at least one window open, so pack a parka.

subtext‘s paradoxical conclusion: for as long as many are avoiding Stagecoach because they’re worried about the risk of travelling by bus, the numbers on the buses will remain so low that the risk is likely minimal. Alas, in true tragedy of the commons style, as soon as enough of us realise this, the numbers are likely to rise until the risk becomes something to really worry about.

Maybe we shouldn’t be printing this story.

subtext 194 – ‘voluntary subtext reductions’

Increasingly less often during term time.

Letters, contributions, & comments: subtext-editors@lancaster.ac.uk

Back issues & subscription details: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/about/

In this issue: editorial, BLM, open letter, appeal for editors, online teaching, rent strike, liddle, phones, nuttall, elections, pandemic, letters.

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EDITORIAL

Our new Vice-Chancellor was clearly trying to strike a Churchillian note when drafting his 10 June email to all staff. I am encouraged, he noted, by the resilience and dedication I have seen in Lancaster since my arrival, and with that spirit, we will face whatever may come as a united and collegial team. Very inspirational, for sure, but if it achieved anything it was to cement the fear that Lancaster University’s position is about as secure as the British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk.

Whilst we’ve saved maybe £3–5m through furloughing, the announcement that the University Council is seeking to reduce spending by £66m over the coming financial year makes this belt-tightening seem relatively minor. This figure is based on the Council’s middle risk scenario, which supposes that around 20% of incoming EU and overseas students will not appear in October, leading to corresponding reductions in fee and accommodation income. Our cash flow is not great, with reportedly less than 2 months of cash in hand for paying salaries. Interest payments on £65m of private debt can’t be helping either.

The £66m in savings are to be split three ways: £22m saved by deferring our capital expenditure; £22m saved by making non-payroll budget savings; and £22m saved from payroll, hopefully to be achieved through voluntary options.

These options formed the main topic of conversation at an anxious informal meeting of Lancaster UCU, held on 11 June with 54 members present. Senior management had reportedly agreed to take a 10% cut in their salaries for the 3 month period beginning on 1 August; less, proportionately, than the amount that striking staff have already lost this year. Those opting for a voluntary pay cut will, officially, take their full normal salary but donate a portion of it back to the University through Payroll Giving, so preserving their pension contributions. Why the arbitrary division of £66m into three equal parts? UCU members were unsure. A more formal meeting of Lancaster UCU on 18 June was so popular that some members were unable to get in, as numbers had reached the Zoom-imposed maximum of 100.

On 16 June all staff received another email, from the Vice-Chancellor and the Pro-Chancellor, offering some ideas: making a contribution of your salary, delaying the financial reward element of promotions, purchasing additional annual leave, temporarily reducing your working hours, career breaks, flexible furloughing etc. Everyone is invited to participate in a survey to opt-in to a range of voluntary options which will help reduce the overall pay bill in the short term. The Vice-Chancellor will give up 20% of his salary.

The FAQ for the survey tries to reassure everyone that, there will be no direct consequences as a result of this survey or impact to you if you decide not to participate — what about indirect consequences, then? — but adds, in a way that can’t help coming across as slightly menacing, that the more staff who are able to participate then the stronger the University’s response to this financial situation will be.

Are we overreacting? Undergraduate recruitment figures are very good (our total number of firm accepts for 2020–21 entry now exceeds the corresponding figure for 2019–20 entry, which makes this year one of our best ever) although postgraduate taught figures are not quite as rosy. An email from the Director of HR to line managers, sent on 16 June, notes that the measures are designed to help protect the cash flow of the University over the three month period from 1 August to 31 October because there is a need for immediate cash preservation. Are we finding it more difficult to obtain credit at the moment? How are Leipzig and UA92 looking these days? Letters and thoughts to the usual address, please.

Asynchronicity

Understand blended learning yet? Where are you on the big ‘Teams vs Panopto’ debate? And how many times have you used the phrase ‘asynchronous learning event’ in the last two months? subtext‘s correspondent has tried to navigate the maze of buzzwords, so you don’t have to.

While the May 2020 paper Academic Delivery in 2020/21 and Beyond, produced by the ‘Bronze Assessment & Teaching Team’, offers the vision of a University switching, maybe several times in one term, between ‘multiple operating modes’, the June 2020 document Minimum Expectations for Teaching Events 20/21, signed off by Prof Maria Piacentini, makes it clear that, as far as our planners are concerned, we should focus on an all-online academic year.

According to the May paper, there will be three modes: ‘normal operating conditions’ (unlikely, in the first term at least); ‘social distancing imposed’ (which would mean the end of face-to-face lectures, but hopefully keep seminars and tutorials going); and ‘face-to-face teaching suspended’. Assuming that some face-to-face teaching is possible, the highest priority will be given to science labs, with lectures getting lowest priority. Despite the stated need to keep ‘a distinctive Lancaster offering’, staff are being asked to consider how they could ‘streamline their current and future offerings’, noting that ‘opportunities for reducing the number of programmes or modules and sharing of modules across programmes should be actively sought out’.

Given that departments will have been advertising the courses they expect to teach for over a year now and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) takes a tough line when the ‘goods are not as presented in the brochure’, it seems unlikely that many courses could be ‘streamlined’ away, even if this was desired. A short summary of the CMA’s 2015 guidance to universities is available at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-providers-short-guide-to-consumer-protection-law

The CMA stresses that, ‘before, or at the latest when, offering a place to a student, you must tell them of any changes since they applied and give pre-contract information which includes course information and costs, information on complaints handling, and any cancellation rights.’ Most of our applicants were offered a place well before COVID-19 hit and the CMA is unlikely to accept ‘but hey, virus!’ as a reason why a key course can no longer be taught.

The June document moves from generalities to a highly specific — teaching staff might say too specific — set of rules. We must develop ‘asynchronous lecture events’, made available ‘no later than the start of the planned lecture’, and even earlier where possible. Live-streaming of lectures is specifically discouraged; the ‘gold standard’ is apparently to split up a lecture into 4 x 15-minute recorded segments. If possible these should be recorded from home; recording from lecture theatres should be avoided where possible. Don’t think we can ignore the timetable, though, as we must also build in ‘synchronous discussion sessions’ at timetabled hours.

As several commentators have already noted, this plan would prohibit lectures being taught, live and online, with recordings made available immediately afterwards; a method which would be the preferred choice of some. Instead, we’re asked to adopt a method which doubles staff lecturing time (once to prepare an ‘asynchronous lecture event’ and once to hold the corresponding ‘synchronous discussion event’). A further issue is that ‘synchronous discussion events’ are supposed to be recorded for students who don’t turn up. Experience suggests it is hard enough to motivate students to speak in seminars even in precedented times; will they be willing to speak if recorded, and what do we do about discussions around sensitive topics?

Speaking of students turning up, apparently ‘any synchronous aspects will likely result in clashes therefore must be recorded.’ Why lecture clashes are likely is not explained. If we can schedule a full programme to (mostly) avoid clashes when we’re all attending in person, why would things get any worse when we’re all connecting via Teams?

Could it be that Lancaster is having problems putting a timetable together with so many staff on furlough? subtext readers have noted that on 5 June, a request went out to those who have offered to volunteer to support needy people on campus asking for help ‘supporting the timetabling process at the University.’ Apparently, ‘the Timetabling team have requested some support in liaising with faculties and departments to identify and understand their needs and feed these back into the Timetabling team for them to process.’ Sounds far more rewarding than delivering food parcels!

If face-to-face teaching is permitted for smaller groups, then ‘seminars’ must be prioritised for face-to-face provision, but no such priority is given to ‘workshops’ in the sciences or the arts. The distinction between a seminar and a workshop isn’t specified, and at this point a trunked mammal walks into the discussion – given we had difficulty scheduling all our seminars into limited numbers of flat rooms when it was okay to squash 25 into a room designed to fit 15, how on earth could we achieve this if restricted by social distancing to 6 or fewer per room? And, given that halving the numbers in each seminar would mean doubling the number of seminar teaching hours, who is going to be teaching these sessions?

For the arts, the prescribed solution is to get students doing their practicals at home: ‘departments may seek to enable the use of domestic internal and external spaces by individual students in which case appropriate consideration must be given to H&S and EDI issues.’ The idea of clusters of Theatre Studies students all practising out on County Square does have a certain beauty to it, although probably less so when faced with Lancaster’s usual winter weather.

Neither of the documents discuss the likely number of students who will actually be living on campus, because of course no one knows, but we’re reassured that we’ll still be offering ‘a college-based campus learning environment’. We can only hope that most of our students turn up in person, given that if they don’t, our much-publicised cash flow problems may go from being serious to critical. Fingers crossed.

PANDEMIC REVIEW: COVID-19

Deadly dull and goes on far too long. 2/5

subtext 193 – ‘stay home and read subtext’

Every so often during term time (and sometimes slightly later).
Letters, contributions, & comments: subtext-editors@lancaster.ac.uk
Back issues & subscription details: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/about/
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EDITORIAL
That UCU strike seems a long time ago now, doesn’t it?
As Lancaster’s staff and students adjust to a new working life involving ‘daily exercise’, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and all manner of ‘virtual learning platforms’, subtext reflects on two weeks we should have probably all seen coming, but which most of us didn’t.
For those on campus during Week 20, the atmosphere was strangely peaceful; hardly anyone around, bars and shops gradually choosing to close, and nothing but the almost-daily updates from ‘Lancaster Internal Communications’ to remind us that things were, in the wider world, definitely not getting any better.
Incidentally, subtext would be interested to know why the Vice-Chancellor has chosen to colour the ‘Lancaster University’ header at the top of his COVID-19 updates in Management School Teal, rather than the usual Lancashire Red. Is he trying to create an artificial divide between his usual chummy ‘we’re all in this together’ persona and his new, necessarily terrifying ‘vacate your offices by Monday’ persona? Every time we see that flash of green at the top of an email, we know the news is bad. The consequences could be severe – subtext has visions of groups of staff in years to come experiencing flashbacks and panic attacks every time they pass LUMS and catch sight of that oppressive shade of green.
The UCU disputes on pensions, pay and conditions continue, of course, with not a lot changed after 14 days of further strike action – except the election of a new UCU National Executive Committee that will be far more to General Secretary Jo Grady’s liking than the outgoing one. Relations locally between unions and management remain strained. Unlike several universities, including Birkbeck, King’s College London and St Andrews, which have indefinitely deferred all strike deductions in the light of the coronavirus crisis, Lancaster seems unusually keen to punish its staff as rapidly as possible, with many staff due to see a full 14 days’ worth of pay deducted from their March salary payments. Most Heads of Department seem to have been happy, under orders from HR, to ask staff to declare their strike days as soon as possible. Could the University be jittery about its financial position? This week’s announcement of a freeze on all external recruitment (see our article in this issue) suggests that they may be.
As we go to press, news has reached the subtext warehouse that the University now wants all staff to report their COVID-19 status. In an email to staff, Director of HR Paul Boustead claims that they ‘require this information to enable the University to meet its reporting requirements and respond to requests from [the] Office for Students, government and emergency services.’ While it is clear the University has a role to play in flattening the curve, and in some respects has been ahead of the government in this regard, asking all staff to disclose specific details about their health seems like a clear case of institutional overreach. Readers can of course make their own decision about whether to comply with this request, or reply to Paul Boustead with a frank indication of their views.
There will no doubt be a lot to think about in the coming months. As we prepare for a term, or perhaps longer, of remote working, subtext hopes to be there to cover the serious stories and, hopefully, provide a bit of light relief. Stories, reviews and letters are more welcome than ever – send them to the usual email address.

FROZEN

News reaches subtext that, in an email to line managers on Wednesday 25 March, the Vice-Chancellor has announced a complete freeze on all external recruitment at Lancaster. Where an offer has already been made, this will be honoured, but all other appointments and vacancies are to be frozen.
The VC informs managers that ‘we are having to review our short to medium position regarding staff recruitment and all other costs in light of the significantly altered financial and operating position. You will be aware that we communicated last week a deferral of the most significant capital projects; i.e. the next phase of the LUMS development, the refurbishment of the east estate, and the construction of the new Engineering building. Other changes to the capital programme will follow.’ As a result, ‘all external recruitment (including through ERS) with immediate effect is being placed on hold until further notice.’
The existing vacancy control process for Professional Services staff will now apply to all roles, including ERS (the University’s in-house employment agency that lets them hire people on zero hours contracts while pretending not to have any staff on zero hours contracts) positions and proposed extensions to fixed term contracts. The process will assess whether vacancies are ‘strategically critical roles’ where the freeze should not apply.
There is some reassurance: ‘we need to ensure we are, where possible, providing job security to our existing staff and mitigating the cessation of fixed term contracts. This will require us to think differently and creatively as we redeploy staff and share our resources.’ Furthermore, ‘we will automatically place all fixed term contracts due to come to a natural end on the redeployment register.’
Fixed term staff awaiting transfer to indefinite status, as promised by the University’s new policy, are likely to be disappointed: ‘we are mindful that work is due to start in respect of the new Fixed Term Contracts Policy and this work will continue as best it can do in light of COVID-19 context. However, managers should still keep fixed term contracts under review as normal.’
This announcement will hardly have come as a surprise to anyone – after all, how many overseas students do you think we’re realistically likely to recruit for the coming year? Your subtext drones wonder how equipped the university would be, or more likely would not be, to weather a significant one-year drop in student numbers without redundancies.
We should perhaps be grateful we are not at the University of Sussex, which reportedly announced on Wednesday 25 March that all temporary contracts should be ‘terminated where possible’:
https://twitter.com/KathrynTelling/status/1242860784306343938/
As subtext goes to press, 44 vacancies are still being advertised at: https://hr-jobs.lancs.ac.uk/

SHOWING YOU CARE

Some of you may be familiar with the ‘Clap for Our Carers’ campaign, which has recently spread across social media with the speed of, well, some sort of virus. The idea was that the people of the UK would, at 8pm on March 26th, take to their windows, porches, gardens, etc. to deliver a nationwide round of applause for those NHS staff currently on the frontline of the fight against the coronavirus.
Alas, we still haven’t got around to removing the soundproofing we installed in the subtext warehouse during the recent campus construction works (subtexts passim). However, reports reach us from those on the receiving end of this display of gratitude – reports of banged pots and pans, car horns, fireworks and applause. Suffice it to say they were extremely grateful for the show of support; good on you to those subtext readers who took part!

WE’RE STILL THE RECORD HOLDERS

As coronavirus fever first gripped the country, and as the government prepared to enact emergency laws to postpone all public elections, one solitary local council by-election took place on Thursday 19 March 2020, for the Upper Stoke ward of Coventry City Council. Other by-elections had been scheduled for that day, but called off unilaterally by their returning officers, and no further by-elections are likely to take place anywhere in the UK for the foreseeable future.
Gurdev Singh Hayre (Labour) won the Upper Stoke ward with 639 votes, out of 1214 who cast ballots, 651 of whom were postal voters. A shockingly low turnout of 9.02%.
Surely this pandemic-affected turnout must be a record low for recent public elections? Apparently not, commentators concluded – there was another council by-election, in 2016, where the turnout had been even lower, 7.12%, and the winning candidate had been returned with just 98 votes. Where could that have been?
You’ve guessed it. The University & Scotforth Rural by-election for Lancaster City Council (see subtext 156), held on 8 December 2016, continues to defeat all comers in the apathy stakes. It’s comforting to know that even the fear of catching COVID-19 has nothing on our students’ tendency to avoid the polls on a cold day.

SUBTEXT PRESENTS: A SOLUTION TO TOILET PAPER SHORTAGE

1) Receive this latest issue of subtext
2) Print off this latest issue of subtext
3) Problem solved