Cambridge SU U-turned after a number of College JCRs and MCRs raised objections to the pledge to move teaching onlineLouis Ashworth

Cambridge Students’ Union (SU) have reversed their pledge of campaigning to move all non-essential teaching online and will instead lobby to “establish an opt-in system for face to face teaching”, with online teaching as default.

The SU changed their stance following an amended motion, which was accepted as a friendly motion, submitted to the Student Council tonight (26/10) by a number of College JCRs who opposed the SU’s initial campaign to move all non-essential teaching online.

This policy U-turn follows backlash after the SU released a petition on October 15th, asking students to “pledge to opt-out of non-essential face-to-face teaching for the duration of Michaelmas Term in light of concerns about the health of our community”. The campaign garnered some pushback from students, which was communicated to the SU via a number of JCR/MCR surveys.

The pledge was launched in response to documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) last Monday (12/10). The documents showed that government scientific advisers called for “all university and college teaching to be online unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential” as early as the 21st September.

Tonight’s motion, however, stressed that “a number of students expressed dissatisfaction with this pledge, placing value in some of their in-person teaching and feeling dissatisfied with current online provisions.”

The motion notes that “that it is important to ensure that the education offered at the University of Cambridge is safe and accessible to all students, and that it meets the varying needs of the diverse student body.”

Following the vote on the motion, the SU retracted their present policy and instead will campaign for the University to ensure “all teaching is available online” and, as initially stated in their #DemandSafeCambridgeCampaign, that there is an “opt-in system for face-to-face contact hours for students.” Similarly there will also be an opt-in system for staff, “with no penalties for those who chose not to teach in-person”.

The SU, in a press release following tonight’s successful motion, stated: “We have consulted a large number of J/MCRs over the past week about their concerns, and found that our objectives are aligned. One of the primary issues raised was that people felt the provision of online teaching was not at the same standard as in-person small group teaching.”

The SU statement continued: “Our new position of campaigning for online teaching as the default, whilst still enabling face-to-face teaching for as long as possible, would allow for students to choose their mode of teaching whilst encouraging the University to take seriously the needs of those who cannot access in-person teaching”.

The SU hopes that by adopting this opt-in system, they will ensure “that students and staff uncomfortable with in-person teaching have more flexibility and comfort when choosing their preferred mode of teaching.”

The motion also highlights the “large amounts of anxiety amongst academic staff members″ who are often “being expected to deliver in-person teaching.” It also goes on to note that “due to the casual nature of this work and higher likelihood of living in private accommodation, many postgraduate supervisors lack access both to the University’s asymptomatic testing scheme and sick pay in the event of falling ill with COVID-19.”

During tonight’s Student Council, Aastha Dahal, Postgraduate SU President, stressed that the postgraduate representatives would continue to advocate and communicate on behalf of supervisors to ensure they feel comfortable with teaching requirements.

Dahal also stressed that the SU will continue to seek clarity and consistency across departments in terms of what they expect from their postgraduate supervisors while Ben Margolis, Undergraduate SU president, said that “no opportunity should be denied to supervisors” if they chose to teach online.

This call for staff to feel safe during teaching was endorsed widely during the Student Council meeting by JCR and MCR officers.

References were also made in the motion to central Cambridge’s rising number of cases. It was felt that a move to online learning “would sensibly allow for the fact that increasing numbers of students are self-isolating and thus forced to study online, and also anticipate a situation in which Cambridge moves to Tier 2, effectively minimising disruption to education as conditions change.”

The motion also included a commitment by the SU to “to lobby the University to agree that if all the teaching will be moved online, the University will … let students leave Cambridge safely to continue their studies remotely.”

The SU has resolved “to push the University to allow flexibility in future teaching arrangements, by allowing students to opt-in to study remotely in Lent Term to avoid incurring the additional costs and dangers associated with returning to University campus.” International students were in particular referenced in this regard as they incur additional travel and accommodation costs and uncertainties when returning home.

The motion which caused the SU’s policy reversal was submitted after JCRs conducted surveys on the SU’s pledge, finding that many students opposed their position on virtual teaching.

On the initial conflicts between JCR officers and sabbatical offers, Christ’s College JCR President Oliver O’Brien, who submitted the motion, said that he hoped that “better communication from the SU and greater willingness to listen to JCR officers” will help to prevent future issues when concerns are raised by the student body.

Reasons cited among survey respondents for opposing the SU’s pledge were mental health concerns and concerns about the removal of one of the only forms of “safe” social contact through supervisions, the exceptional nature of Cambridge teaching and the lower quality of online teaching. The surveys also highlighted some students’ frustration at being forced to travel to the UK, “only to have their student union campaign for more teaching to be moved online.”

Cited in the motion originally put to the Council was a survey conducted by Christ’s College JCR officers. The survey was answered by 51% of Christ’s JCR, or 204 Christ’s students, within one day. The survey revealed that 76% of respondents disagreed with the SU policy, though O’Brien noted that students agreed with the SU’s principle that online teaching provision should be improved.


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Meanwhile, Girton’s JCR had 211 responses to their survey with 63% of respondents disagreeing with the SU campaign. The main concerns raised about the SU’s pledge to move non-essential teaching online included a “large number of people citing online learning alone in their rooms as a massive welfare concern”.

Girton’s JCR Vice-President, Heather Hawkins, told Varsity that “people struggled with loneliness, difficulty focusing, lack of motivation and less physical activity” when virtually learning.

She also highlighted that respondents “reported that by nature of being virtual, even with the best supervisor in the world, there isn’t the same level of engagement and effective learning with their subject.”

Among other JCRs that conducted surveys, which found strong opposition to the SU’s initial pledge, were The Robinson College Students’ Association, St John’s College JCR, the Union of Clare students, JCR of Corpus Christi College and Fitzwilliam JCR.

The SU in their press release stressed that they are “continuing to meet with both student representatives and senior University officials to lobby for the student interests outlined in the amended motion, for both this term and the next.