By Workers' Liberty Higher Education workers
For the first UK universities to open, the start of term has been the predictable shambles when it comes to so-called "Covid-security". St Andrews has asked its students to observe a "voluntary lockdown" for this weekend. Manchester Met has a cluster of cases on campus (now running at 127 and rising) which have been linked by local media to a party in halls. Some students have been confined to their flats. In large areas of northern England bans on household mixing mean they are not allowed to visit friends' or parents' homes.
At Leeds, according to the Tab, university security has been breaking up parties with the help of a dog squad. It is completely unacceptable for the University to resort to heavy-handed policing to deal with the consequences of their failure to plan.
UCU has rightly called for all teaching that can be moved online to be moved online, but the financial pressure to get hall rents in has led management in the majority of institutions to insist they will do at least some face-to-face teaching. A small handful, including UCL and Birkbeck, have opted to be fully online - proving that it can be done. But the Government is also to blame here for its failure to provide a bail-out sufficient to cover the lost income
(rents provide a much bigger percentage for some institutions) and for its insistence against all the evidence that people should get back to the office.
Management has often tried to justify the return to campus with claims that students want face-to-face teaching. But while staff are doing our best, discussion and small group work in enclosed spaces is high-risk and cannot be effectively delivered in its normal form with social distancing. It may be the most precarious staff (e.g. Assistant Lecturers) that are timetabled to do this teaching, those with less leverage to resist if they need to isolate for the sake of their health.
Already many US universities (which start term earlier) as well as Sciences Po in Paris have had to shut down campuses. The situation facing UK institutions is entirely predictable.
Campus union branches have been fighting running battles through the summer to ensure that management produce adequate health and safety policies to safeguard workers from the as-yet-unknown long-term impacts of Covid. There are varied tactics. Anglia Ruskin has declared a formal dispute, while some branches are holding off in favour of supporting members who cite Section 44. We may quickly reach a point where the number of self-isolating staff and students makes an online switch inevitable. That could have been avoided.
The national campaign for online is a good start, but it needs to be backed up swiftly with a clear industrial strategy that links up with student unions to make education safer, to protect it for the long-term, to save jobs and demands emergency government funds for Higher Education.
See also No classes, no rents!