The University and College Union (UCU) has criticised Oxford University’s reopening procedures, saying they are withholding health and safety risk assessments. The University refutes these claims.

Reopening universities includes producing risk assessments, which identify possible areas of concern and lay out contingency plans. Departments work with the University and staff to create these assessments, which are subsequently circulated to staff within the department. However, Oxford’s risk assessments are not currently shared with the UCU.

The UCU told Cherwell: “We have made it clear that we find the university’s approach and refusal to share risk assessments with us, as guidance and agreement says, unacceptable.”

In an email seen by Cherwell, the UCU wrote to the Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson that the University “has not been forthcoming with necessary information and that there has not been meaningful consultation with our Branch.” The UCU requested that the University share risk assessments for Departments, Faculties, and Schools, along with equality impact assessments, in order to “engage in dialogue with the University about what improvements to arrangements could be made.”

The UCU represents faculty and staff at universities, colleges, and other educational institutions across the UK. It is one of three trade unions recognised by Oxford University, the others being Unite and Unison, which represent support staff.

The University responded to the UCU via email: “The University has been clear from the start of lockdown that it is not practical or useful to share all risk assessments with the Oxford UCU. At a local level safety representatives are often involved in developing risk assessments and risk assessments are shared with all staff.”

The email further states that regular meetings are held with trade unions to discuss the University’s reopening strategy, where Departments have accepted feedback. The University continued: “The HMG guidance on employee consultation encourages consultation, but is clear that employers retain the right to manage.”

The government guidelines on reopening higher education institutions do not specify the role of trade unions. However, they reference an agreement between unions and educational institutions, which are represented by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), of which Oxford University is a member.

UCEA and trade unions issued a joint statement which outlined expectations for universities. This includes consultation “on staff health and safety, and about how the institution will manage risks from Covid-19 including regarding the re-opening of departments and services.” It further agrees that universities “will undertake appropriate risk assessments and review them in consultation with trade union health and safety representatives.”

Oxford University has told Cherwell: “The University is surprised by the national UCU’s claims as we are currently meeting every few days with our three recognised unions, including the UCU, to discuss in detail our approach to reopening. These meetings have been part of a regular constructive dialogue about the principles of safe return to onsite working, in line with government guidelines. This has included the University seeking and accepting feedback from the unions on HR and Health & Safety guidance documents in advance of sharing the guidance with staff. 

“As the University works towards reopening and continuing our vital role in world-class education and research, our number one priority is the health and well-being of our staff, students and local community. Staff are being kept fully informed of the extensive protective measures being introduced, including detailed guidance on risk assessments and returning to safe on-site working, which were developed in consultation with our unions.”

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