Universities are risking student and staff lives by continuing the push to return students to unsafe campuses and maintain some face-to-face teaching
There is a madness stalking the corridors of university management buildings. As Covid-19 cases increase across the country, particularly in the cities, university bosses seem hellbent on bringing students back on to campus.
Scotland leads the way in this and as predictable as autumn follows summer, outbreaks are starting to appear. Scottish students went back two weeks ago and we are seeing the first serious outbreaks. Glasgow University has 600 students self isolating after 124 tested positive for Covid 19 with cases traced back to Freshers week. Around 29,000 students were welcomed back onto Glasgow University's campus despite the vast bulk of teaching moving to online. In addition, there are 500 students self-isolating in Dundee after an outbreak there and a further 72 in Aberdeen.
Despite this hard evidence, English university bosses are carrying on regardless with their plans to bring students back en masse. Many are still clinging to their proposals to deliver up to 6 hours face to face teaching for students despite UCU branch after UCU branch declaring themselves to be in opposition. Helpfully, and not before time, the national UCU union has come out against the mass return and in favour of online delivery wherever possible.
So why are the employers doing this? Unfortunately the answer is very simple, universities are businesses as far as the employers are concerned and although they operate as a cartel on many issues, they are still competing against each other. This competition for students and research funding takes place both domestically and internationally. Overseas students have become a large source of income. Student residences have sprung up around the cities and need filling. Student fees need collecting.
So to keep the cash registers ringing, we now have students imprisoned in halls of residence, paying for the privilege. There is even talk that they may have to stay there over Xmas, so much for concerns about their mental health. They should mass test students now, those that test negative can return home and those that test positive, quarantine and then send them home too. We have to ask ourselves, is this really the best we can do and is this the type of higher education system we want?
Meanwhile, it is the workers in universities and their unions, not just UCU but also Unison and Unite who are calling for sanity. By developing plans for safe campuses, open to those who need them such as medical students, with teaching online for those who can stay at home, it is clear that the unions have won the argument. The university managers need to climb down out of their ivory towers, accept they were wrong, and start planning for a genuinely safe university. Universities should be part of the solution to this pandemic, not part of the problem.
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