Northumbria University had one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 amongst students. Photo: Mike Quinn / / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article Northumbria University had one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 amongst students. Photo: Mike Quinn / / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

The financial priorities of the neoliberal university have fuelled the COVID crisis and the antidote is solidarity between lecturers and students, argues Dragan Plavšić

The COVID crisis in universities is spiralling out of control. As I write, 84 universities and counting have reported COVID cases: 64 in England, 13 in Scotland, 6 in Wales and 1 in Northern Ireland, or close to half of the UK’s higher education institutions. Worse, these must be underestimates, as testing is in many places limited to symptomatic students. Recent research has found that 72% of the tested are in fact asymptomatic and only 17% have classic COVID symptoms.

Not that you’ll find any of these figures collated on official websites. As the BBC reported, there are ‘no official figures on university COVID outbreaks from the government, the Office for Students or Universities UK’. Universities themselves haven’t always been that forthcoming either, which means the job of keeping tabs on cases has had to be done by dedicated independent researchers, themselves reliant on sympathetic staff and students for detailed information. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking the authorities don’t want us to see how bad things are…


The claim that universities would be ‘COVID-secure’, to use a now-infamous phrase beloved of vice-chancellors, was always absurd, for this would have entailed the impossible feat of isolating universities from a society where COVID was not at all suppressed and the infection rate among 18-24 year olds was double the national average.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the most serious outbreaks have been in areas where COVID infections have been at their highest, in the northeast and west. In Newcastle, at Northumbria University, 770 students have tested positive. At Manchester Met, 137 cases led to 1700 isolating, now virtual prisoners in halls. Other areas are sure to follow. London, in particular, stands at a ‘very worrying tipping point’, in the words of its mayor, having just been placed on the government’s COVID watch list, the standard preliminary step to a local lockdown. And indeed, universities in and around London are now showing signs of contagion.

As a result, the step to independent freedom that is a key feature of student life has turned into its opposite, with students trapped in halls of residence, tied into rental contracts they cannot escape, and paying thousands in tuition fees with little or no prospect of a rebate. Typically, the vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University rejected calls for a rebate with this clichéd piece of overblown neoliberal management-speak, ‘An Edinburgh degree will still be a fantastic investment for these students.’

Growing opposition

With learning increasingly online, many students have reached the surely correct conclusion that they were lured back to campuses and halls with unrealisable promises of a near-normal ‘student experience’ – for financial reasons. The fact that the current fiasco was widely predicted by the likes of Independent SAGE and UCU, only to be wilfully ignored by university authorities, adds formidable force to this conclusion.

There is now a developing mood of opposition among students born directly of the realisation that they aren’t in fact the priority that vice-chancellors routinely claim they are. This mood reflects the one among lecturers, who are still being pressured by their universities to deliver face-to-face on-campus teaching despite the deteriorating situation. They aren’t the priority either.

All this warrants a two-fold response: one that addresses the immediate, unfolding crisis, and another that addresses the neoliberal university model with which this crisis is intimately intertwined.

Responding to the immediate crisis

What can we expect this autumn and winter at universities then? Very likely, these will be months peppered by on-and-off COVID outbreaks and lockdowns, with universities suffering repeated infections, not to mention the implications for the wider communities of university locales.

This will put the need for solidarity between lecturers and students at a premium. The joint statement by UCU and the NUS last week was a good start, but it will have to be followed up locally.

These two issues – the prospect of repeated outbreaks and lockdowns and the need for staff-student solidarity – should be at the heart of local branch discussions and motions in the coming weeks.

In particular, we will have to think about pushing for the following:

1That universities move to online learning as the default with immediate effect, reserving on-campus learning for practical work only;

2That universities undertake the managed depopulation of halls of residence to safe levels, including closing them where the infection is rife, with students receiving full refunds;

3That, in the interim students who want to return home, assuming a negative Covid test, should be allowed to do so without suffering financial loss, such as liability for rent;

4That vice-chancellors agree to rebate tuition fees; and

5That the government provide universities with the funding they need to get through the crisis without redundancies.

Opposing the neoliberal university

In an article published some fifty years ago, the great Marxist historian, E.P. Thompson, then a reader in labour history at Warwick University, launched a famous assault on the birth of a new type of university which he called the ‘Business University’.

Reading it today, you can hardly fail to be struck by Thompson’s prescience. For what he saw clearly were the beginnings of the neoliberal university and the fundamental flaws that are so much a feature of it today: business norms ‘actively twisting the purposes and procedures of the university away from those normally accepted in British universities’; ‘an increase in the ratio of students to staff’, meaning more work and teaching to larger groups; the emergence of ‘a security-conscious administration, who were told to mark certain staff and students as “disloyal” to the organisation’; and a new type of vice-chancellor, not so much ‘an academic organizer and arbitrator as the managing director of a business enterprise’.

This led Thompson to conclude that ‘we have here already, very nearly, the ‘private university,’ in a symbiotic relationship with the aims and ethos of industrial capitalism, but built within a shell of public money and public legitimation.’

What Thompson could not have then foreseen was quite how this new type of university would eventually become the norm under the lashing whip of neoliberal thinking, the logic of which was simple, if not crude – to reduce state funding by making universities self-financing.

Blair’s first government took the decisive step, when it introduced tuition fees in 1998, set initially at £1,000, then trebled to £3,000, and trebled again by Cameron, before finally rising to £9,250 today. In this environment, with universities competing with one another for students made lucrative by their fees, it was inevitable that other supplementary sources of revenue, such as rents from halls of residence, would be pursued with equal intensity. As a result, it is now common to see contemplated what was once unthinkable – that universities might go bust like any other business.

The neoliberal university that’s emerged from this miserable political consensus is the business university Thompson assailed, now supercharged by its voracious appetite for tuition fees and rents. Its senior managers lured students back to campuses by putting cash before common sense and profit before people, thus fuelling the Covid crisis with their twisted priorities. These priorities need therefore to be subverted, most immediately for the sake of our health. But they also need to be subverted for the future sake of university education, which should be as free to students as school education. The solidarity of students and lecturers will be essential for the success of both struggles.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).