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Empty lecture theatre. Photo: pixabay

Empty lecture theatre. Photo: pixabay

The new term has seen universities plunged into Covid-chaos. John Westmoreland spoke to UCU activists about what’s happening and the action we need

As universities open for the new academic year UCU activists are angry about the situation they find themselves in. The new term is always a difficult time for staff and students alike, but this year they both face the added worry of teaching and learning in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We talked to several activists to provide a collective analysis of the situation. Three themes that require action emerged from the discussion: the chaos the pandemic has caused in a market-driven system of Higher Education (HE); the plight of students who are being used as a capital resource; and for the national union to step up and meet the needs of the situation.

The business model laid bare

Activists from one university spoke about the approach from many managers.

“I think that the management’s brains are addled by their priority of getting the money in. Cash comes before common sense. It is easy for a windbag like Johnson to blather on about ‘getting back to normal’ but that means over riding health and safety concerns in reality. University Vice Chancellors are overpaid business managers, out of their depth in what is a crisis for Higher Education.”

And,

“Managers are stricken with panic. They want to get students back on campus and into halls of residence because they need the rent money. They know that there may well be another lock down but have promised face-to-face teaching so that students will return. They know that once they are on campus students will spend money in bars and shops, and they don’t want to lose that revenue.”

A Goldsmiths activist pointed to the additional, and disastrous, effects of universities having to meet the demands of financialisation:

“The drive to get students back on campus has been intense – revalidating every module and promising unrealistic levels of face-to-face teaching. Goldsmiths is trapped in a PFI deal that means the money raised from students is essential to paying off debt. Students go into debt so that the university can pay its debts! And it is not just that working conditions are dangerous, management is using the Covid-crisis to cut jobs and cut the curriculum.”

Management are putting self-cleaning facilities in rooms, making it the responsibility of staff and students, and this is okay because health and safety is everyone’s concern. But sanitiser is not enough. In Newcastle the view is that the rules do not go far enough:

“The two-metre rule is insufficient when there are queues to access labs, and with up to seventy students in one room it is impossible to stop the impact of aerosol transmissions. Staff put in a massive amount of work over the summer months to offer high quality online teaching. There is no reason why students cannot stay at home and access their teaching from there. Home based learning is the obvious solution.”

The marketization of education also means that management at one university are in competition with managers at other institutions, and are trying to gain competitive (market) advantage. This means that in a market free for all there are going to be casualties.

Education should be, and there is no reason why it can’t be, a success story across the board. But no clear government rules, nor financial support where necessary, are in place. The result is chaos.  

In Glasgow the crisis is acute:

“Glasgow University has the largest halls of residence in Scotland and these have become the epicentre for a second wave of infections. Media, management and the Scottish government have been all too ready to blame students for this crisis. But it was the university that insisted in allowing the in-person fresher’s fairs to go ahead, and these no doubt spread the virus. It has led to a huge public outcry and now, thankfully, the university has back tracked. They have paid back a month’s rent to students, which is good, but there has still been no official statement from the Vice Chancellor.”

Clearly the Tories' solution to everything is to use the market. But the current crisis has laid bare the limitations of market-led provision. The business model has no place in education, which is about meeting the future needs of humanity, not the immediate gratification of financiers. The government is playing fast and loose the lives of our students.

Student life in a cell block

The activists we spoke to were furious at the way their students are being treated. In a sharp contrast to the smiling, happy faces students see on university prospectuses, many are starting their studies locked in pretty small, cell-like rooms, guarded by security personnel.

Living away from home for the first time is a big enough challenge as it is. Students in their first year should be making friends, joining student societies and experiencing the freedom to make decisions, and form relationships, that they will remember throughout their lives.

Milking students for rent money, breaking up parties, minimising social interaction, while promising them a life transforming experience is a disgrace.

Our activist in Newcastle argued for UCU members to give concrete support to students that are isolated and locked down:

“Tory cuts have removed important welfare infrastructure, and this turns difficulties into crises. Throughout the pandemic front line workers have had to step over government incompetence to meet the needs of service users. We have a duty of care to our students that involves defending them, and their education from this chaotic state of affairs. We should reach out to student societies and talk to them about our common demands. In particular we should show a united front over health and safety, and the way the market is ruining education.. The Tories are seeking to play lecturers off against our students and we have to unite against them.”

This view is very much supported by a lecturer at another university:

“We have a high proportion of BAME students at our university. We know that Covid-19 disproportionately affects this group, and yet management are so cavalier in their attitude. I agree that we need regular meetings with students to build solidarity. This might take a lot of effort but it is vital if UCU has to take meaningful industrial action in the months ahead. In solidarity with our students I think we should demand that they are allowed to study from home – No rents! And that fees are reduced.”

The thought of students leaving Higher Education, mired in debt, after going through these extremely difficult circumstances is not on. No surprise then that the activists we spoke to were keen to make UCU a more effective union – one that can meet the crisis in HE head on.

Unity against the market 

One lecturer at Goldsmiths gave us an insight about the difficulties lecturers are facing.

“At Goldsmiths we are fighting on a number of fronts. Management have been reckless about Covid to say the least. They went against the government guidelines and organised an Arts Show and a Computer Festival. We are also probably going to be battling redundancies. It is a massive mistake for UCU to fight institution by institution, one issue at a time. If management can use the Covid crisis to press their market agenda we should respond in kind.”

This was echoed by others. In Glasgow the view is that UCU has failed to provide a national response to a national crisis:

“It is no use simply leaving activists on the ground to handle these issues. We need a national response, we need industry-wide negotiations to win industry-wide solutions. Without a strong national response individuals are left exposed. What strikes me in particular is the stark difference between the NEU’s response and ours. This is an urgent situation – business as usual won’t do.”

The need for a national response is central, as another lecturer put it: 

“The situation is worrying. If Labour would stop equivocating it would help. UCU should come out now and oppose on-campus teaching. They should insist that Section 44 of the Health and Safety at Work Act that allows us to refuse to work in unsafe conditions is stuck to. If we don’t have a strong response individual branches will do their own thing and management will simply say ‘if they’re doing it so can you’. We will probably have to fight the battles case by case, but a strong lead from the top is essential.”

And,

“UCU were very late in speaking out. They left it to the end of August before taking the online teaching default position. It is ridiculous, frankly, to wait and see what management are going to do before we respond. We need nationwide negotiations to produce agreements that will protect every member of the union.”

At Newcastle the UCU branch has voted to teach ‘only when necessary’, and the spike in infections there means more teaching is moving to online in any case. Our comrade in Newcastle argues for UCU to come up with a national plan of action:

“If NEU can hold mass meetings online why can’t UCU do the same? I think we need to take a long-term view and see past this crisis. If the economy tanks what then for HE? I don’t think VCs, on bloated salaries, should remain in place while education gets cut back. We need a plan of action that members can have faith in.”

Covid on Campus: How We Curb the Crisis

A Branch Solidarity Network Rally. Wednesday 30 September, 6:30pm. Register on Zoom here.

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John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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