A union representing many staff at Queen’s University (QUB) is in dispute with management over a return to on-campus teaching.
The University and College Union (UCU) said extensive face-to-face teaching was not safe due to rising Covid cases.
A spokesperson for QUB said it had not asked any staff to physically return to work unless it was necessary in the interests of students.
The new university term at QUB and Ulster University begins on Monday.
About 45,000 students will begin or resume degree courses in Northern Ireland.
However, many will take a significant proportion of their courses online.
Students taking degrees which involve practical or laboratory work are most likely to spend time on campus.
Universities have also introduced other safety measures, including extensive use of face coverings.
But in a message to lecturers and other staff who are UCU members at QUB, the union claimed many staff had been asked to return to campus.
“The position of the UCU continues to be that as long as government guidance states that remote working should be prioritised wherever possible, staff should continue to work from home and that teaching should be conducted online unless there are genuine pedagogical reasons for in person sessions,” it said.
“As cases in Belfast and Northern Ireland are on the rise, it is the UCU position that it would not be safe to opt for a mass return to campus or extensive in person teaching within the next few weeks.”
The UCU said it had informed senior management at QUB that it was lodging an industrial dispute.
That may mean the university and union have to engage in formal talks to try to resolve the issues the UCU has raised.
The UCU also said it was not up to their members to decide on how many students could safely enter a teaching room or to prove they met a health exception to teach online.
‘Mitigations in place’
In response, a QUB spokesperson said the health and well-being of students, staff and the wider community was the university’s first priority.
“A range of safety measures have been put in place to minimise the risk of infection on campus,” they said.
“All parts of the campus reflect the latest public health guidance and the university has not asked any staff to physically return to work other than where necessary in the interests of our new and returning students.
“The university has been meeting with UCU and other trade union representatives on a regular basis and have addressed their concerns, clearly explaining the mitigations that are in place for each issue raised and for the wider protection of staff.
“The university continues to operate within the guidelines set by the NI Executive and Public Health Agency.”
Both QUB and UU have also recently warned students who breach Covid-19 guidelines that they face an automatic suspension.
The UK government’s scientific advisory group, Sage, has previously said that there was a “significant risk” that higher education “could amplify local and national transmission”.
“It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with higher education, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect,” a Sage report published in early September said.