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Training professionals during the pandemic

12 October 2020

Apprentices need face to face learning. Photo Monkey Business Images/shutterstock.com

Professional training and qualification has to continue despite the current pandemic. There’s a risk the need for face to face teaching is overlooked in the response to coronavirus outbreaks at schools and universities.

The role of the universities and colleges and their unions is important. In August the University and College Union (UCU), which represents lecturers, expressed its concern about reopening universities and colleges and resuming face to face (f2f) teaching. A lot has happened since.

Mixed teaching

Most universities came up with plans to provide safe conditions for new and returning students to enter campuses, halls of residence and other accommodation. There was a promise of “blended learning”; courses would be modified to allow a mix of online and f2f teaching. The aim was for students to have as near possible the expected experience.

We have seen extensive media coverage of the Covid-19 outbreaks in universities. At first that was in Scotland, then the North of England and now the East Midlands, specifically Nottingham. As a result at least three cities (Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle) will abandon all f2f teaching in their large universities in favour of online learning. The situation is changing daily; Liverpool followed suit on 9 October.


Universities welcomed new and returning students back at the start of term in the face of warnings from the UCU. In some place local residents expressed fears about the spread of the virus and host local authorities aired similar concerns. Many are now saying that the return of students was wrong. The union accuses the universities of sacrificing the welfare of students and staff to the financial needs and commitments of the universities and of the private landlords who run much of the student accommodation.

But this is an oversimplification. Universities and colleges also have a commitment to students on courses for which f2f learning is essential. These vocational courses take place in both higher and further education. They train a wide range of workers essential to the needs of a developed society – from nurses and care workers to mechanics and musicians.

‘It’s incorrect to think the number of affected courses is small.’

There are exceptions to the blanket move to teaching online. Most of the commentators within the UCU including the general secretary Jo Grady, acknowledge this. So do experts such as Sir Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at University of Aberdeen. But it’s incorrect to give the impression, as some have done, that the number of affected courses is small and their special requirements manageable.

It’s clear that the nature of some courses requires them to continue with students and the staff teaching them to be present. That that includes engineering and science courses and clinical subjects, such as medicine, nursing, pharmacy, dietetics, physiotherapy, chiropody and osteopathy.

Practice certificates

But there are many other professions besides the more obvious ones. Teachers, social workers, psychologists, psychotherapists all study through vocational courses. Their professional bodies govern content and assessment. Students must not only pass their degrees but have a certificate to practise from the relevant professional body. The host university or college must meet the professional bodies’ requirements including f2f work before issuing the final certificate allowing graduates in these professions to practise.

Beyond those professions other disciplines in the arts and business need f2f studio and workshop time – for example architecture, drama, dance and the law.

In further education, where the UCU also represents teaching staff, students are trained to become nursing assistants, paramedics, nursery nurses, health care assistants, hairdressers, beauty therapists, car maintenance engineers, builders, plasterers, electricians, gas fitters and so on. These vocational courses require f2f instruction and assessment before the validating body can issue a certificate of competence to practise.

Many students currently enrolled on vocational courses in higher and further education across the land unavoidably need face to face teaching to some degree. No one knows exactly how many courses and students are affected, but any college prospectus will show a high proportion of the courses described above.


There should be frantic discussions going on between the professional bodies and the colleges and universities to understand the f2f need and to look for ways of reducing some of this f2f work, if only in the short term.

For the safety of all working people and to maintain standards, compromises on f2f learning should only be marginal and short term. Simply shutting up shop should not be an option.

The UCU and some of its representatives seem not to have grasped the scale of all this, especially the extra workload on staff. The UCU should raise this now with the government.


Not only are all affected courses across HE and FE sectors having to be rapidly rewritten to put as much of the normal teaching on line as possible, but the necessary f2f teaching will have to be done in Covid-safe settings. Unless this issue is addressed seriously, it seems inevitable there will be delays in students qualifying.

This impact will be on all of us through our access to decent health care, properly staffed schools for our children and to properly qualified workers in general. It also affects the current government’s declared promises to increase the numbers of teachers, engineers, technicians, doctors, and nurses, as spelled out in Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party Annual Conference held online at the beginning of October.