Issues of health and safety, together with increased workload, alongside cuts, have led to a number of local disputes opening up in universities. A staff-student online assembly organised by the UCU Solidarity Movement on 10 October has called a day of action on 16 October.
Groups of students at a number of universities are discussing rent strikes, but these need to be backed up by local student unions and the National Union of Students running a much higher profile campaign around “the right to move” (to get out of accommodation contracts, to return home, to defer courses).
Most universities will go online eventually, but dragging this out continues to endanger staff and students. In Manchester, a handful of students had been hospitalised, some even in intensive care.
Many students will be anxious and their lives made worse by the lack of adequate support. At the University of Nottingham the management has tried to enlist staff to be unpaid volunteer support. Why weren’t properly trained support staff recruited months ago?
Senior managers at UK universities had clear indications back then that their policy of insisting first-year students move into crowded, high-transmission-risk student accommodation to attend face-to-face was unsafe.
Mass outbreaks of Covid at US universities in August were one clear warning. Over the summer, campus unions warned about health and safety only to be ignored and dismissed as scaremongers. Now we know that on 21 September the government’s scientific advisory group, SAGE, recommended “all university and college teaching to be online… unless absolutely essential.”
Yet despite clear evidence that Covid is spreading rapidly through universities and out into local populations, university managers continue to insist on unnecessary face-to-face teaching.
The UCU’s Covid dashboard gives some idea of the scale of the continuing outbreaks, although not all institutions are being transparent with their reporting.
At Northumbria, which has seen one of the biggest Covid outbreaks (over 1,000 students confirmed as infected), the university moved to online teaching only after staff threatened strike action. Manchester’s universities only went online because they were, essentially, told to by Public Health England.
The driving factor behind this negligence is a financial imperative for universities to declare “business as usual”. Cuts and redundancies are now being made across many institutions. Some — Roehampton, Christ Church Canterbury, University of Portsmouth, University of East London — are in serious jeopardy.
Students and staff are demanding:
• The right to move! Students should have the right to get out of all tenancy contracts, both university-owned and private accommodation. In Scotland students have the right to terminate contracts. Students must be told their rights.
• Full transparency over infection numbers. This is public health information! Vulnerable students and staff, especially cleaners and security staff who have to work in infected areas, need to know.
• Some students will chose to stay in university accommodation. This should be organised at reduced capacity.
• Earlier self-isolation (before test results) is better, and students should be given clear guidance on it. Much more testing on campus, essential in a population where most infected people have few or no symptoms. Adequate PPE for all staff who have to be on campus.
• No surveillance of students. Stop punitive fines. Additional support for international students.
• Recruit and put in place trained support staff. A university-organised programme of delivering food and other essentials free of charge to students in isolation.