1 Mar 2022

Tertiary union disappointed at VUW's handling of Covid-19

From Checkpoint, 5:11 pm on 1 March 2022

As Wellington's Victoria University faces a rapid spread of Covid-19 among students, the Tertiary Education Union says it is very disappointed in university leadership.

VUW Tertiary Education Union branch president Dougal McNeil.

 VUW Tertiary Education Union branch president Dougal McNeil Photo: Supplied

It was revealed yesterday by Stuff reporting that there were 648 positive cases of the coronavirus among students at its halls of residence.

VUW Tertiary Education Union branch president Dougal McNeil told Checkpoint that reporting was how he found out about the cases. He was "baffled" as to why university management has not spoken directly with student and staff representatives about Covid-19 on campus.

"I think we've seen a pattern over two years of the vice chancellor and the senior leadership downplaying the seriousness of Covid for our community," McNeil said.

"Two years ago this week, Professor Guilford was campaigning against the border closures the government was trying to put through.

"He spent 2021 campaigning against the border closures continuing, and now we've gone into an entirely predictable situation, as a so called business as usual can continue. And staff and students have been left picking up the pieces."

At present, students were able to come into campus, and some lectures and tutorials were being delivered in person. 

"We don't know how many students are going to turn up. Basic good faith would seem to me that you're open with those (case) numbers with the staff, with the union, and with the students, so people can make informed health decisions.

"Without the numbers, which the management knew on Monday morning, how can people make a decision if they're able safely to go in?"

The first week of the semester involved a lot of socialising, with people arriving from out of town and moving into halls.

"We know how infectious the virus is, that must mean also there are others yet to be diagnosed and confirmed in the community. 

"If the numbers are spreading so rapidly - a situation that we predicted and warned the management about in January - we should expect it to get a whole lot worse. So yes, I think the numbers matter considerably. This is the first day of teaching. It's already at this level."

As for face-to-face lectures, McNeil said: "I think we need to face reality and ask to see how much longer those can go on. We all want to be able to do face-to-face lectures safely. But the best people to judge whether that can continue are staff members in the classroom, not dictates from on high. 

"We want staff members to be able to make the call whether they move their courses online, and I think also we need to start having pretty urgently a serious conversation with the students' association and with the union about when we need to move online."

He was "baffled" when asked why the university had not provided the information about the extent of cases among students.

"It seems an absolute bedrock of good faith engagements around a core union question of health and safety. We have attempted to engage, we sought urgent meetings in January to raise our concerns about the shift that Omicron would represent. We've been concerned about workload and capacity for some time. I note that the leadership are asking for volunteers amongst the staff to get involved in being able to step in and help with the extra support. This is a lack of preparation that I find boggling and distressing.

"Students are part of this community. They're not customers, if we're bringing them in, in a situation where their health has been compromised, that will be on us. We need to speak honestly and openly with students and give them an opportunity to make decisions for their own health."

McNeil spent today preparing his teaching to adjust for the situation.

"After this I'll be asking for another meeting with the university management. We raised these questions in January.  They were brushed off then. And it's disappointing to see what was easily predicted playing out now, but we'll repeat that message with some urgency."

The university was offered the opportunity to appear on Checkpoint.