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Goldsmiths Ben Pilmott Building, London. Photo: Bill Cresswell / WikiCommons / cropped original image / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The government and universities are using Covid as cover to attack workers and students, but the sector is fighting back, writes Milly Williamson involved in the dispute at Goldsmiths University

The Covid Pandemic is bringing to head things that have been in motion in Higher Education in the UK since student fees replaced government grants. Labour scrapped the grant system and introduced loans in the late 1990s, but universities continued to receive some state support. In 2010 the Conservative and Liberal coalition government led by David Cameron tripled student fees to £9000 and replaced almost all state teaching grants (especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) with loans that were dependent on student numbers. This led to the marketisation of Higher Education, in which students were burdened with terrible debts and university income became dependent on student numbers and the money they bring with them.

But there is a problem with this market model for Higher Education, where funding depends on student fees – it leaves universities vulnerable to crisis and drops in student numbers. This means that universities built business models on constant expansion in student numbers to draw in more and more student fees, while decreasing staff costs through below-inflation pay rises (which has resulted in a real-term salary cut of about 25% in the past ten years), regular rounds of job cuts to ‘balance the books’, and replacing full time lecturing staff with cheaper and easier-to-sack part-time teaching staff. It is estimated that about 40% of teaching staff in UK universities are now on such casualised contracts.

Most universities overspent in the years after 2010 when universities saw their incomes rise with the trebling of fees to £9000. But university managers did not spend that extra income on libraries or teaching and student support staff; instead, they built shiny new buildings, marketised accommodation blocks and we saw obscene increases in senior management salaries.

As in other sectors, continual expansion is not sustainable – there is not an ever-expanding number of students, (even in the ‘international markets’) and competition between universities vying for a larger share of the same pool of students have left some universities expanded beyond capacity and others struggling to survive. And once the expansion in student numbers slowed, universities that accrued large debts in previous years are now facing the results of a marketised higher educational system that university bosses so enthusiastically embraced.

University employers across the sector are now using the Covid pandemic as a cover to make staff pay even further for debts built up by senior managers, by sacking workers and leaving the remaining staff with impossible workloads. At the start of the pandemic, university bosses claimed that job cuts were necessary because of a predicted drop in student numbers for the academic year beginning in September 2020. But when those predictions of doom did not come to pass, university bosses continued with their plans to sack staff.

And for all that governments’ and university administrations’ claim that students are revered customers, the mask slipped in the Covid crisis. The loan system was always a disaster for students, burdening them with a huge debt at the start of their working lives, but during the pandemic, students were lured back to campuses on the lie that they were safe, and that learning would go on more or less as normal. And the reasons universities lied to students about this is that ultimately university bosses see students as units of resource, and alongside fees, they depend on halls of residence income to survive.

So, what was previously a general attack on higher education, has now become, under the cover of the pandemic, an all-out assault on workers in the sector, with students faring no better.

The Goldsmiths example

Goldsmiths, University of London exemplifies these trends. The university has a union-busting Warden (Goldsmiths’ quaint name for Vice-Chancellor) who is attempting to restructure the institution through a centralisation programme that will take decision-making out of the hands of staff in departments and situate it with senior managers, will cut courses that don’t make a ‘profit’ and will try to shift Goldsmiths from its history of radical and critical teaching and research to vocational teaching and training.

The university has already made significant job cuts since the summer through the sacking of staff on part-time or fixed-term contracts, voluntary severance and the non-replacement of staff who leave. The Warden and her senior management team now plan a further round of job cuts amounting to millions of pounds in the coming year.

As is the case more widely, the senior management at Goldsmiths are making cuts that exacerbate already profound race and gender inequalities.  Goldsmiths, like the rest of the sector, has an unacceptably high number of staff on casualised contracts and because of structural discrimination, these staff are disproportionately women, Black, Asian and ethnic minority staff and particularly women of colour. Goldsmiths bosses were so unconcerned about the impact of these job cuts on Black, Asian, ethnic minority staff and women that they did not even carry out an equalities impact assessment to demonstrate they were meeting their duty not to discriminate.

More recently, they have refused to offer the expanded furlough scheme to staff parents and carers who are union members engaged in legitimate and legal industrial action. This is clear discrimination against women who still do the majority of childcare, is likely to be illegal and is clear evidence of the union-busting nature of Goldsmiths employers who are trying to deter staff from taking part in industrial action by refusing them the support that non-union employees can access.

But university workers are fighting back. At Goldsmiths we worked hard in a recent ballot and got about a 60% turnout. Our ballot returned over 90% in favour of action short of a strike including an assessment boycott and 70% for strike action. We are now in week six of our assessment boycott and participation in the action is strong.

The government and HE bosses have been trying to restructure the sector – and the sector is fighting back. We have seen ballots and industrial action recently in UCU branches from Brighton to Herriot Watt, from Solent University to Leeds. Even before the use of the pandemic to attack university workers we have faced attacks and had militant national strikes to defend our pensions and working conditions in the past two years – strikes that took our bosses by surprise. And now across the sector, we are fighting for our jobs and for our right not to be forced to work in unsafe workplaces, with managers trying to bully staff into unsafe face-to-face delivery.

The membership of UCU has grown dramatically in the past three years and many branches have been revitalised by young activists who are often leading the fightback. Meanwhile, the national union has not led a national campaign to protect staff from being forced onto unsafe campuses during the pandemic and there has been no national campaign to defend jobs. We urgently need to build democratic rank and file organisation within branches and across branches to develop our capacity to organise independently, to link up branches who are in dispute, and to force the UCU national machinery to shift gear.

What you can do

1Pass this motion in your branch

2Make a donation to Goldsmiths UCU

3This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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