Universities will be hit as bad as care homes! – scrap campus reopening demands UCU

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UCU strikers on the picket line at University College London on March 13 this year – the day before the lockdown began

UNIVERSITIES must scrap plans to reopen campuses next month in order to prevent a major public health crisis, lecturers union UCU said.

The union fears that the migration of over a million students across the UK risks doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes.

UCU said that the prospect of mass student migration was already challenging enough, but the A-levels fiasco and the removal of the cap on the number of students universities can recruit risked overwhelming some institutions and turning universities into the care homes of a second wave.

UCU said that demanding over a million young people move around the UK to attend university made no sense.

The union highlighted there is no functioning track and trace system in place, nor any UK-wide plans to regularly test students or staff.

UCU said the push to get students back on campus was being driven by a dangerous desire to get back to business as usual, before it was safe to do so.

UCU said that, rather than allowing universities to reopen precipitously, the government had to step in and underwrite any lost funding for the higher education sector.

The union said universities that rely on tuition and accommodation fees feared lost income and the government had to make it clear now that they will not suffer financially for doing the right thing in terms of public health.

The union accepted that there would be challenges switching from blended learning to online, but that the move outweighed the health risks for students and the wider population.

UCU added that it was highly likely that reopening campuses would result in local lockdowns and courses being moved online.

The union said it was best to make that call now instead of a U-turn that would be too late even by this government’s standards.

In the US more universities are moving back to online only after seeing increases in Covid cases.

There are also examples across the Atlantic of students being blamed for increases in cases and lockdowns – something UCU said it wanted to avoid being repeated in the UK.

The union said that if campuses reopen and cases rise then blaming students, instead of doing everything to mitigate against it happening, would be a denial of responsibility by government and universities.

The union said it backed recommendations in last week’s report from the Independent Sage committee that called for online learning to become universities’ default position.

The union said that although recorded cases were on the rise, the government has not provided systems for testing and tracing that could cope with campuses reopening and universities have failed to step into the breach.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘Moving a million plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave.

‘The recent fiasco over exam results and their fallout has left universities under even greater pressure.

‘It is time for the government to finally take some decisive and responsible action in this crisis and tell universities to abandon plans for face-to-face teaching.

‘Refusing to act now will only store up problems further down the line as courses are forced to move online and students forced into lockdown.

‘It is no good blaming students later on for a problem that could have been avoided by government action.

‘We need to move all teaching online for the first term of the new academic year, as recommended by Independent Sage, and the government needs to underwrite any lost funding for the sector.

‘The limited, piecemeal funding measures announced by the government so far are nothing compared with the security and the stimulus that would be provided by a comprehensive funding guarantee. Students will also need financial support to ensure that they can participate fully in online learning.’

The union has issued new guidance that also calls for greater testing on campus and better and more cleaning. UCU said it wanted colleges and universities to work with the union on risk assessments to ensure staff and students could be confident their health and welfare was institutions’ number one concern.

Earlier this week, the union called for face coverings to be worn in colleges and universities.

Meanwhile the University of East Anglia (UEA) after facing a £35m shortfall because of the pandemic, told the staff to ‘take voluntary pay cuts through reduced hours, and to consider voluntary redundancy’.

University bosses also wanted to impose a blanket pay freeze across all staff, delaying scheduled incremental rises for long service.

But in late August, UEA agreed not to subject lower-paid staff to the increment freeze, and to continue working to avoid any compulsory redundancies.

Unison organises support staff at the university. Once the profound effect that the pandemic was going to have on the university became clear, branch secretary Amanda Chenery-Howes and workplace representative and communications officer Dylan Brook Davies – together with representatives from UCU and Unite – were invited to weekly meetings with senior management.

The vice-chancellor frequently attended, and discussion centred on the impact of Covid-19 on everything from working from home to the institution’s finances.

‘It very quickly emerged that university finances were going to take a serious hit once the dust had settled and after the immediate impacts had been dealt with – students moving off campus, staff moving to work from home, exams being cancelled,’ explains Chenery-Howes.

‘A finance working group was established with representatives from across university management, as well as campus unions.

‘It became clear that there would need to be savings made by the university, and in May, we were presented with a set of proposals that would provide the adequate savings to fill the gap that UEA was predicting we would be looking at.”

The proposals included measures such as a reduction in all non-pay costs – some of which came organically as a result of Coronavirus: the international travel budget, for example, wasn’t necessary in the initial stages of the pandemic – and some measures that would directly impact on staff pay, in the form of an increment freeze.

‘The overwhelming majority of Unison members are among the lowest-paid on campus,’ Chenery-Howes says. ‘And as our members consist of staff such as cleaners, grounds staff, and security, it is Unison members who have kept campus running and safe for the students who chose to remain on site once lockdown had been enforced.

‘We knew as a union that to impose any freeze on the lowest-paid members of staff would be a morally wrong decision – and Unison does not condone pay cuts for any staff – so we could therefore not be seen to be supporting any freezes to increments for any staff, regardless of pay grade.

‘We had to come up with some creative solutions to avoid these measures being imposed, such as negotiating a voluntary reduction in working hours scheme, as well as ensuring that the negotiations looked to the future by securing UEA’s endorsement of UNISON’s higher education campaign.’

With proposals on the table, the branch opposed the proposal to implement pay cuts and in negotiations, were adamant that those who remained on site should not have a real-terms pay cut imposed on them. Chenery-Howes says that the union ‘worked hard to negotiate an outcome which would ensure that all the lowest-paid members of staff on campus will receive their increments as normal.

‘When UEA and the other two unions agreed a proposal that meant that the lowest pay grades would be unaffected by the increment freeze we, along with UCU and UNITE, balloted all affected members and the proposal was accepted with a clear overall majority voting in favour that those staff on the highest salaries should bear the brunt of the cuts.

‘Unison was delighted to receive no negative responses from our members.’

Chenery-Howes describes it as ‘a massive win for Unison and our membership, adding: ‘This has been an incredibly difficult time for staff at the university – not only have we had Covid-19 hanging over us, but the threat of losing jobs and pay as well.

‘If UEA is going to successfully emerge from lockdown, it’s the cleaners, IT technicians and facilities staff who will make it possible as much as anyone else. It’s right that their pay is protected.

‘What UEA staff, and universities across the UK really need is action from the government to protect higher education and its vital contribution to our economy and society.

‘It won’t just be staff or students that suffer if our universities are left to cut themselves out of existence.’