The 2020-21 academic year is getting underway. Higher Education (HE) institutions that closed down and sent most of their students away in March, scrambling to move all teaching online, are preparing to welcome over two million people, mostly young, once more.
Universities and colleges like many workplaces are allowed – expected – to reopen so long as they are “Covid-secure”. All insist that they are now that – for students, staff, and the surrounding community. They cannot afford to do otherwise!
HE institutions are now basically businesses who must compete and make money to survive. They already lost money when they closed. They fretted throughout the summer that undergraduates (undergraduates = tuition fees) would not want to join or rejoin in 2020-21, but would defer to 2021-22. Fortunately for the universities, that seems not to have happened – who, after all, wants to spend even more time cooped up at home?
Universities make money from student accommodation, so they have been very keen that students sign up to move in, whatever their prospects of on-campus teaching.
If students decide that on balance they would prefer to move out of halls (or not move in) we should insist that they have the right to do that, and are refunded any hall fees they have already paid. This may become a hot topic or lead to rent strikes quickly if further lockdown measures are introduced.
In the period ahead we must demand that HE is freed from market forces and is publicly funded to deliver high quality education to everyone that can benefit from it — but as safely as possible. That is not possible in a market system where institutions are torn by twin imperatives.
In early September, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) told the Government:
“There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect.
“It is essential to develop clear strategies for testing and tracing, with effective support to enable isolation.”
Independent SAGE said: “All University courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they are practice or laboratory based, with termly review points.”
They urged heeding the lessons of the US where a third of colleges reopened in August with face-to-face teaching and quickly experienced Covid outbreaks; many shut down again.
The UCU union that represents HE teaching staff recently set out five tests for safe opening of campuses, but the first is not currently being met nationally, let alone in Covid hotspots: “Sustained reduction in numbers of Covid-19 cases and infection rates”.
UCU branches are negotiating locally with management and in most places the vast majority of teaching will continue to be done online. Frankly, nothing else is possible. A Covid-secure workplace means rooms can only be used at around 25% of normal capacity, and since some of the rooms used for student contact were small to start with many of them are useless in the Covid world.
There are many issues for campus trade unions and student campaigners to work on together in the coming term. We should be guided by a few key principles:
Solidarity: between students and staff, between different staff groups and unions, and between the university community and the wider community.
Using our power: we must insist on being consulted over all issues thrown up by Covid and act fast when we need to. Lives depend on it.