University of Kent, Canterbury. Photo: St BC / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported, licence linked at bottom of article University of Kent, Canterbury. Photo: St BC / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported, licence linked at bottom of article

University staff are pushing back against the callous actions of universities and the government putting staff and students at risk

UCU made the na­tional headlines recently, finally arguing that without proper testing and tracing in place, a return to face to face teaching could risk creating pockets of Covid-19 that would force universities back online.

The reason why uni­versities are so desper­ate to see students re­turn to campus is not an underlying com­mitment to improving their learning experience. If that was the case, they would lower the staff/student ratio and invest in more teaching staff, counsellors, IT support and librarians. They would end the casualisation of frontline lecturers.

The real reason for their desperation is simply that they are increasingly dependent on the revenue that students bring when paying for over-priced accommodation as well as the commercial income they get from conferences and events.

Staff have been instructed to return to work as ‘normal’ even though the situation is far from that. Some people are saying that we shouldn’t exaggerate the risks and that it’s only fair to open campuses to teaching or else we’re restricting students’ right to a proper education.

What this overlooks is the coordinated pressure from government and universities themselves to return to campus, which is effectively putting profits before public health.

If things were so ‘normal’, then the employers wouldn’t have to embark on the redundancy programmes, promo­tion freezes and course closures that we are seeing across the country.

Instead, Covid-19 has provided universities with the op­portunity to make staff – including the most precarious academic staff – pay for the chaos that a higher education market has delivered in the last ten years. We’re seeing the deepening of a two-tier system in which top Russell Group universities mop up additional demand with few­er and fewer restrictions on their activities while univer­sities that serve less privileged groups face a very uncer­tain future.

Universities might claim to be horrified by the Tories’ A Level fiasco but you don’t hear complaints from those in­stitutions set to benefit from the mess.

Fortunately, some UCU branches are resisting the pressure and attempting to preserve conditions for staff and students. There are ballots currently going on at Kent and SOAS over compulsory redundancies while Gold­smiths is set to ballot members in opposition to a whole slew of cost-saving measures that were brought in with­out proper consultation and equalities considerations.

The UCU leadership needs to make sure these branches aren’t left to fight alone and should organise solidarity actions to involve as many members as possible. We need a national campaign (and not just national head­lines) against Covid-related redundancies and cuts.

By refusing to accept management’s gung-ho approach, we’re not being precious. We’re arguing for our universi­ties to commit themselves to invest in the safety meas­ures and staff resources that will deliver a high quality education. If they won’t listen to reason, industrial action (including strikes and marking boycotts) remains the only proven method to make them change their minds.