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Vax deadline ticking for Flinders Uni students, staff

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All students and staff at Flinders University wishing to attend campus must declare they have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by February 28 or agree to undertake weekly rapid testing at their own expense, in a first for South Australia’s higher education sector.

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The new order, which was communicated to staff and students on Friday, applies to all staff, students, academic affiliates, contractors, tenants, vendors, occupiers and volunteers at the university, except those with a medical exemption.

The university’s new student vaccination policy states that all students “must not attend at campus or any in-person learning activity from 28 February 2022” unless they have made a declaration of having received “one dose of an Approved or Recognised Vaccine” as well as “having received or having booked to receive a second dose of an Approved or Recognised Vaccine”.

Unvaccinated students have been given the option of making a “commitment to conducting a RAT within 3 days before attending an on campus or any in-person learning activity”, with attendance only permitted if they receive a negative result.

A negative RAT result will be valid for three days, meaning a negative test on Monday morning will be valid up to and including Thursday, while a negative result on Friday or later will be required for attendance the following Monday.

A Flinders University spokesperson said students “will need to submit a declaration on each topic to unlock the content they need whether online or in-person”.

“Like other institutions we are adopting a trust-based approach, and reserve the right to request evidence,” the spokesperson said.

“Unvaccinated students must supply their own RATs, however the University will provide additional financial support to students who meet our existing hardship criteria.” 

Meanwhile, all Flinders University staff will be required to upload their vaccination status to the university’s HR system by February 28.

The spokesperson said unvaccinated full-time staff will need to upload “timestamped RAT results” twice a week, while part-time staff will have to do the same within three days of attending campus.

Vice-Chancellor Colin Stirling, who released a draft vaccination policy for consultation on February 8, said in an email to all staff on Friday that the new rules would be under “regular review”.

“This has been a very difficult issue to grapple with and I thank the many staff who took the time to offer their considered and constructive feedback,” he wrote.

“The overwhelming majority of staff expressed very strong support for a vaccination mandate. Many also expressed support for the alternative Rapid Antigen Test regime for those who remain unvaccinated.”

Stirling said the decision to introduce RATs for the unvaccinated “should not … be misinterpreted as an acceptance of any arguments against the safety and/or efficacy of vaccines”.

“Instead, the use of RATs is in recognition that the pandemic is dynamic and that we may be passing the peak of the current omicron wave in South Australia,” he said.

“The use of RATs will be reassessed if the current wave escalates or should further waves/variants emerge.”

Around 92 per cent of the Flinders University students and staff are fully vaccinated, according to a survey conducted by the university in November with 3868 respondents.

Flinders University is the first of the big three South Australian higher education providers to press ahead with a vaccination mandate for staff or students, with Adelaide University and the University of South Australia so far opting against the move.

According to Flinders’ staff vaccination policy, any staff member who does not comply with the new arrangement will face disciplinary action in accordance with the university’s enterprise agreement “up to and including termination of employment”.

The university’s People and Culture department is leading the “implementation and enforcement” of the policy and is also tasked with ensuring “compliance by any contractors, volunteers, vendors and other third parties in scope … including requiring anyone from these cohorts who do not comply with this policy to leave the campus”.

According to the student vaccination policy, staff in student administration services (SAS) will be responsible for ensuring students comply with the new rules.

Students not following the policy will be contacted by SAS staff who will then discuss “options for compliance … including alternative study options where practicable”.

If the student still does not meet the vaccination or testing requirements, then the University will consider alternative study options, including converting to fully online learning, deferring their studies or “adjusting” their course selection.

“In circumstances where the University determines that alternative study options are not available or feasible and the student is required to attend a University or other location to undertake or complete their studies, this may mean they are not able to complete part or all of their course,” the policy states.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students) Professor Romy Lawson and Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) Sebastian Raneskold told students in an email on Friday that the policy “balances the University’s responsibilities to support the health and wellbeing of our community with individual rights”.

“As you know, the situation around COVID-19 is constantly changing so we will regularly review the policy and will provide an update prior to semester two about whether the policy will remain in place for the second half of the year,” Lawson and Raneskold wrote.

“We know that the vast majority of our students and staff recognise the value of vaccination and have been fully vaccinated (and in many cases have received boosters).”

It comes after University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Høj informed colleagues last week that his institution would not pursue a vaccination mandate at this point in time.

However, he emphasised the university now has the power to implement such a direction if circumstances change.

“I remain convinced that the University requires the ability to direct its community to be vaccinated when the risk justifies the impact on the rights of individuals,” he wrote in an email on Tuesday, February 15.

“Nonetheless, on balance, I judge that mandating vaccination currently is not a proportionate mitigation to the risk posed by Omicron with our very high vaccination rates within our University community and with current public health settings, including the absence of a broader societal vaccine mandate.”

A poll of University of Adelaide staff and students conducted in October indicated a first dose vaccination rate above 90 per cent.

Elsewhere, UniSA Vice-Chancellor David Lloyd wrote to students on February 8 asking them to “please do ensure you are fully vaccinated”, although the institution has no mandate in place.

A spokesperson for UniSA said a recent poll indicated 94 per cent of university staff are, or intend to be, fully vaccinated.

“We have also advised students who are undertaking placements in settings where people are considered vulnerable or at risk that placement providers may require them to be vaccinated before they can complete their placement and graduate,” the spokesperson said.

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