Students before Profit protests Students before Profit protests at Owenspark Hall of Residence, University of Mancherster. Photo: Lucy Nichols, with permission

We must move teaching online, test students and allow them home argues Dragan Plavšić

A national lockdown can’t exempt universities if it’s to have the maximum possible impact on saving lives and suppressing Covid-19. So far, there have been around 35,000 student and 900 staff cases of the virus. These are of course underestimates since testing remains reactive rather than proactive.

In the north, we’ve witnessed the exponential rise of the virus, a rise to which the reckless decision to entice students back to universities made a key contribution. A similar trend is now visible in the south. The latest Imperial College study based on 86,000 swabs estimated that the R rate in London was 2.86, in the South East 2.34, in the East of England 2.18 and in the South West 2.06. All these rates are now much higher than in the north.

Moreover, we know half-measures don’t work, as the catastrophic record of the government shows. Johnson’s half-hearted regional approach allowed a second wave to pick up speed and to spread. Business as usual at universities is therefore a reckless gamble compared to the tried and tested precautionary principle of better safe than sorry.

This is also why it doesn’t make any sense to run the risks of continuing with in-person teaching when the risk-free alternative of online delivery exists. The scientific consensus on this could scarcely be clearer. Both Independent SAGE as well as the government‘s SAGE weeks ago recommended a move to online learning (unless ‘absolutely essential’ for practical study) but was ignored by a government that ‘follows the science’ only when it suits it or it has no choice.

As for students, they aren’t being allowed home and many now face the dismal prospect of being locked down in what will be closely guarded halls of residence where the virus tends to thrive, with all the mental health implications this will have.

In addition to its call for an immediate move to online delivery, then, UCU and the NUS should also call for:

1. The managed depopulation of halls of residence so students who test negative for Covid-19 can be allowed home;

2. The mass testing of students to enable this;

3. Students to be given rent rebates; and

4. The government to cover income shortfalls.

The government wants to exempt universities from lockdown because its priority is financial. University managements are government lapdogs who are also prioritising finances, with every criticism greeted by the supine refrain that they are following government guidelines. Meanwhile, Starmer’s Labour is backing the exemption to prove how spinelessly ‘constructive’ it now is.

There’s only one real option left. We’ve got to ensure unions step up and protect us all, staff, students and the wider community. This means encouraging branches to pass votes of no confidence in vice-chancellors, to declare disputes, and if need be to take strike action.

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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).