Australian union demands more talk over ‘back to campus’ plans

Academics nervous as most universities plan to maximise on-campus delivery amid record Covid death toll

January 31, 2022
Student on campus
Source: iStock

Australia’s academic union wants university administrators to dial back their aspirations for “Covid-normal” campuses, amid concern over widespread plans to resume face-to-face classes.  

The National Tertiary Education Union is pressing institutions to develop “detailed risk assessment and mitigation plans” in consultation with employee and health and safety representatives.

The NTEU says that staff required on campus must be given highly protective facemasks and rapid antigen tests. Buildings must be appropriately ventilated and occupancy limits applied, it adds.

The union’s intervention comes as Omicron drives record Covid-19 caseloads around the country. While new infections have receded from a mid-January peak of around 150,000 a day, average daily deaths have soared above 80 – the highest since the pandemic’s outset – with little sign of abating.

Nevertheless, more than half of the country’s universities intend to deliver the bulk of their classes in face-to-face mode, while stressing that they will observe health authorities’ advice and maintain online options for students unwilling or unable to visit campus.

Much of the detail is spelled out in institutional “back to campus” plans, with staff and students strongly encouraged – but not always required – to be fully vaccinated.

NTEU divisions have organised meetings in Brisbane and Canberra to appraise members and other staff of their rights under occupational health and safety laws. Queensland divisional secretary Michael McNally said the state government needed to play a more active role.

He said that in the absence of a Queensland health directive for the sector, some universities had adopted default work-from-home arrangements while others required staff to be on campus irrespective of whether their roles necessitated it.

The situation is “creating confusion and inequity and placing staff and students at risk”, an online petition says. “We need…a uniform plan to make universities as safe as possible.”

The University of Canberra reportedly deferred plans for staff to work on campus three days a week from early January, and intends to offer a mixture of on-campus and online delivery depending on the course and discipline. But the union wants more consultation about workplace safety, twice-weekly Covid screening of students, suspension of on-campus classes for the first six weeks of semester and the retention of work-from-home arrangements until mid-year.

The NTEU’s Monash University branch said a “provisional improvement notice” served on the institution obliged it to undertake “genuine consultation” on its plan to resume face-to-face teaching on 28 February. Branch president Ben Eltham said the university had finalised the plan the day before assuring the union that there would be consultation over any resumption of on-campus classes.

“We all want the university to keep teaching and researching,” Dr Eltham said. “But staff and students need to be kept safe, and the university has a legal duty to ensure that. Many staff at this university…are immunocompromised, have pre-existing conditions or care for vulnerable dependents.”

A Monash spokesman said staff had been “appropriately consulted” and the plan to resume classes was the “latest update” of a Covid safety plan initiated in March 2020.

“The university has consistently communicated…our intention to return to on-campus teaching and learning, research and operations in semester one 2022,” he said, adding that the improvement notice was “unnecessary” and had not been issued in accordance with legislative requirements.

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